“Then come.” He led me by the hand back to his bathroom.

The shower was a short, if intense, affair. James washed every inch of me, but that was all. I tried to return the favor, but he just kissed me, washing himself. He slapped my ass when I was clean.

“Out,” he ordered.

I was dressed before he was dry.

“I need to grab a few things, if you want to go back to your art studio,” he told me.

I left the sight of all of his naked flesh with more than a little reluctance.

I went to the computer, sitting down. I hated to have to look at tabloids, but unfortunately they held what I needed for the painting I was planning. It took me a minute to find out how to even go online with the new operating system. I typed in the name James Cavendish with a little feeling of dread.

Looking at tabloids had not been a good idea for me lately, but I really wanted that picture.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

I braced myself for the onslaught of unflattering pictures and headlines I was about to see of myself. I wasn’t disappointed.

A few phrases stood out. ‘Cavendish’s new Vegas Vixen’ and ’Trashy Man-eater’ caught my eye as I tried to get quickly to images.

The images didn’t hold the picture I wanted, and I sighed with resignation. I would have to delve deeper into the search.

I paused on a picture of James, dated just last week. He was alone, in a suit, looking so much more solemn than any of his other red carpet shots.

I clicked on the picture. It had been taken at a charity event in New York last week. He had none of his usual charm for the camera, instead posing almost coldly. His eyes were impatient, when he usually had a camera-ready smile. I wondered if I had been the cause for his change. If so, the tabloids had probably been running wild with the idea. They hated me, and loved the idea of a love match between James and his best friend’s sister, Jules. I tried to just ignore the many old images of James and Jules as I went back to my original search, scanning carefully for what I wanted.

I froze at one particular headline. ‘James Cavendish’s New Love has Countless Other Men on the Side.’ I clicked on the link before I could think better of it, wanting to see what on earth they could mean. I blinked stupidly at the pictures in the article.

One was of Stephan and I, walking hand in hand on a sidewalk. I recognized that I was in Miami without having to read the article, though I read the horrid thing anyway.

According to the article, Stephan was my long-time boyfriend, and we were scheming to get a piece of the Cavendish fortune.

I scrolled down in disgust, scanning for other pictures. There were several beach shots of Damien and I, and I flushed at some of them. In one, we lounged by the pool. Damien was giving me a very warm look while I lay with my eyes covered by shades, a little smile on my face. It didn’t look anywhere near as innocent as it had actually been. Looking the picture, you got the impression that he was staring at my breasts and thinking naughty things about me.

Another was of our walk on the beach. His hand was on my elbow, his eyes tender. The way his face was angled towards me… He looked very nearly loving. I was blushing, as though flustered by him, I thought. According to the article beside it, he was a steamy lover that I’d been stringing along. I flushed with anger at the blatant lies.

They’d even caught a picture of Murphy and I. We were walking beside each other and laughing. The article claimed here that I was a shameless seductress who had too many men ensnared to keep track. I regretted reading the trash before I’d even finished, but finish I did.

I scrolled back up to the shots of Damien and I. They looked so much different than what had actually been going on, and I wondered why. The look on his face, perhaps? Or the dark shades I wore, that made my expression so inscrutable?

I was still staring at the disconcerting pictures when James returned to the room quietly, approaching my desk with his slim laptop in one hand.

He raised a brow when he saw my expression. “Why do you look like a deer caught in headlights, Bianca?” he asked, his voice amused. He glanced at my computer screen as he got closer. I didn’t close the window, thinking that hiding what I was looking at would be worse than just confronting it.

James’s face tensed instantly when he saw the photos of Damien and I. I was struck with a thought. He had seen these before. He wasn’t surprised by the outrageous photos, merely infuriated by them. The conversation we’d had about him hating the beach suddenly made a lot more sense. And his elevated hostility towards Damien.

“Th-this is all garbage,” I told him, feeling strangely defensive. “Damien and I were just hanging out.

You know that, right?”

He studied me, his face painfully solemn. His entire demeanor had changed since he’d glanced at the pictures.

“Yes,” he answered finally. “I know as well as anyone how they can take a made up story and run with it. But it still hurts to see you together like that. Damien obviously cares for you, and wants you.

Personally, I think he’s in love with you. My only comfort is that if you wanted him, you would have accepted him before you ever met me.” He studied my face, his very serious, before he continued, “And I confess, the thought that you’ll choose him if you ever decide to go vanilla has disturbed me.”

I blinked at his outrageous little rant. “Of course he’s not in love with me. You know we’ve never even been on a date. And I’m not even quite sure just what going vanilla means, but I don’t think of Damien as anything but a friend, even without you in the equation.”

I wondered, not for the first time, what on earth James could be insecure about. But even the thought was wrong. I just couldn’t put James and insecurity together, even with the proof of it in front of me. The whole idea was absurd. No one in the world could compete with him, in any way. There’s no room in perfection for insecurity, I thought.

He sat down in the other seat at the large desk. He was a good four feet away there, still. He opened his paper-thin laptop, going to work without another word.

“Are you upset?” I asked him quietly, needing to clear the air before I could move on.

His mouth tightened, his fingers already working on his laptop. “I am managing both my unreasonable hurt and my unfounded jealousy. I’ll work it out.”

I stared at him for awhile, trying to determine how best to proceed. I finally decided that if I wanted to work something out myself, something that nothing could be done about, I would want to be left alone to do so. So that’s what I did.

I returned to my search, moving on from the inflammatory article, wanting to forget that the horrid thing even existed. I tried to ignore all of the headlines that drew my unwilling attention, and all of the photos that piqued my curiosity.

I went through webpage after webpage before I finally found what I was looking for. I made a little humph of relief that I’d located the prize.

My noise got James’s instant attention. I clicked to print out the picture as he rose, looking over my shoulder from behind.

“What’s that for?” he asked.

I turned to smile at him. “I’ve wanted to paint it from the moment I saw it, a few weeks ago,” I explained. “Is that okay with you?”

He blinked at me, but nodded his assent.

It was a picture of him when he was fourteen, at some red carpet function. He was posing for the camera, but it was a far different pose from the polished one he had adopted as an adult. His dark blond hair had just brushed his shoulders even then, perfectly coifed, his dusky skin perfect. His face was solemn and serious, his turquoise eyes haughty and fierce. He had been no more than a child, but the man he would become shone through every arrogant line of his face.

It fascinated me, how his strong character shone at such a tender age. I wanted to make it into a portrait shot that he could hang on some fireplace mantle at one of his many estates. Perhaps it could be a legacy for his children.

“You were like a baby supermodel,” I said as he went back to his seat.

He shot me a wry smile. “I detested the way I looked back then. I thought it made my business associates take me less seriously. Typical fourteen-year-old reasoning. It didn’t even occur to me that being fourteen did that all on it’s own.”

I studied him, trying to hide the sympathy I felt for a fourteen-year-old James, who’d had far too heavy of a burden to bear.

“I wish I’d known you back then. I bet we would have been friends.”

He gave me a warm look. “Me too.”

“You weren’t homeless, but you didn’t have anyone, like I did, to turn to for comfort. I think I got the better deal.”

He gave me a sad little smile. “You may be right there.”

I took the printout of the photo across the room, beginning a rough sketch, loving all of the new supplies.

He’d thought of everything I could possibly need.

“Oh, I forgot,” James said. I glanced back at him. He was holding my phone. “Your reception isn’t great out here, but Stephan has been trying to get ahold of you. You can call him from my phone.”

I realized belatedly that I had forgotten I’d even had a phone since we’d arrived at the ranch.

He carried the other phone to me, already set to dial Stephan. I pushed the button, thanking him.

An excited Stephan answered after one ring. It took me a long moment to piece together his hyper chattering.

I blinked, glancing at James. He was working intently at his computer.

“It even has the white grill and the black racing stripe that I was obsessed with. It’s like he took every piece of information he ever heard me say about my dream car and just ordered it.”

Stephan had been going on and on about the brand new Dodge Challenger that James had delivered to his driveway for several minutes, before I got a word in.

“That’s amazing, Stephan.” I listened as he added several excited details. “Yes, James is unerringly thoughtful. I’m so happy for you.”

I couldn’t get a word in for another solid five minutes while Stephan went on and on about his extravagant gift. Finally, he asked to speak to James, wanting to thank him personally.

James took the phone from me with good grace, smiling as he told Stephan, “It is the best way I could think of to thank you for watching out for our Bianca for all these years. I’m indebted to you.” He paused with a laugh as he was obviously interrupted by a frenzied Stephan. “I’ll tell you what. Let’s schedule a meeting when we’re both in New York. I want to discuss a few business matters with you.” James listened politely to the response. “That will work fine. Yes, I’ll do that. Okay, have a good one, Stephan.” With that, he hung up.

I eyed him suspiciously. “What are you up to now?” I asked him ungraciously. But I just knew that he was somehow meddling in my life.

He shrugged. “Stephan is your family. I want to take care of him. And I do feel strongly indebted to him for the way he’s protected you. Also, I’ve found that it pays to be on his good side.”

I studied him, wanting to be annoyed at his interference, but I just couldn’t. He had found something that made Stephan so happy. How could I help but be thankful to him for it?


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