“Thank you for doing that for him,” I finally said. “He’s been obsessed with the new Challenger since it came out. And his obsession for old muscle cars goes way back. There’s not a gift in the world that he would love more than what you’ve done.”
He just smiled at me, shrugging like it was no more than the most simple of gifts to give someone their dream car. “And what would be your dream car?” he asked me.
I gave him a warning look. “Don’t even think of it. I have a car. I bought it with my own money, and I like it just fine.”
He didn’t let up, even with the clear warning in my voice. “Eventually, you’ll realize that what’s mine is yours, and when you do, you can buy whatever you like. I want you to start growing accustomed to the idea.”
I took deep breaths as he spoke, trying to calm the panic that bloomed inside of me at his words.
Was he trying to take over my life? It was a dark, terrifying thought for me.
“I can’t,” I told him on a gasp.
His expression became more closed off, but his tone was as steady as before. “I understand that you need time. I’m trying to give you as much time as I can bear, Bianca.”
My eyes widened at his words. Clearly, the man was deranged. “We’ve only known each other for a month, and most of that time we weren’t even in contact with each other. You call that giving me time?”
His expression, his voice, didn’t alter. “The lack of contact was not of my choosing. And I’ve always been decisive about what I want. When I see it, I take action. This is just how I am. I am trying to be patient, but I have no reservations about what I want from you, what I want our relationship to be. I am trying to respect the fact that you don’t feel the same. I’m just asking you to start growing accustomed to the idea of living together.”
I took several deep breaths, watching him sitting so calmly behind his desk. “I don’t know that I can ever give you what you want. I’m almost positive, in fact, that I can’t.”
His gaze hardened, but his voice was very even. “And I am determined to convince you otherwise.”
We didn’t speak for a long time after his pronouncement.
I didn’t know what to say to him. He couldn’t know me well enough to understand how impossible what he wanted was for me. I could give him control in bed, but I was utterly incapable of giving him control over the other parts of my life. Doing so would trap me. And I knew too well that I couldn’t be trapped and helpless ever again. It had almost destroyed me as a child. It had most certainly destroyed my mother.
I began the prep-work for my painting, but I felt a little too distracted to work at all efficiently. I sketched for nearly an hour before James spoke again.
“I spoke to the manager of my L.A gallery recently. She’s very excited about your debut. She and my New York manager actually had a little tiff over who would get your showing. Due to the desert landscapes, we leaned towards an L.A showing. She will start putting the showing together as soon as you give the go ahead.”
I just stared at him, dumbfounded. The idea of showing my work was still a foreign concept to me. And so much had happened since he’d had samples of my work shipped to his galleries.
“I don’t have to attend the showing, do I?” I asked, the thought daunting and unwelcome.
He looked genuinely surprised. “Well, no. I suppose you don’t have to. But why wouldn’t you want to?”
I gave him an exasperated look. “The press hates me. They will crucify my work if they find out it’s attached to me in any way. I would prefer not to use my own name for the work, as well.”
He looked troubled at the thought. Those exquisite eyes of his were raw with it. “I’m so sorry you’ve been dragged into this media circus of a life. It’s my fault they hate you. The things I’ve seen printed about you…it makes me feel murderous.”
I held up a hand at his tirade. “Fault isn’t the issue. We need to deal with the issues at hand, not whose at fault. And you have to admit that my showing won’t be helped by the media attention my name and appearance would bring to it.”
He flushed a little, though I couldn’t tell why. “Please just consider attending. You deserve to take pride in your work, and to get credit for it. I would love it if you would allow me to escort you to the event, but by all means take some time to think about it. I’ll have Sandra prep your work and hold off on the date until you decide what you want to do.”
I nodded that I understood, but still dwelled on it as I worked. If I was brave, I would just go through with the ordeal. It wasn’t as though I’d be forced to read the horrible reviews about my work.
I was so distracted that I made a mess of my initial sketch, finally having to just toss it and start over. I could hear James talking quietly on the phone or I would have turned on some music to relax. Finally, I put in some headphones and played the music on my phone, tucking it into the pocket of my jeans. The picture started to come together after that, the sketch much closer to the image I had in my head of what I wanted.
We worked for hours like that, in relative peace and barely speaking. We worked for so long that I even began the painting process, which sometimes took me several sessions to advance to. I liked to have a very good sketch, usually, before I broke out the paint.
I wasn’t sure what it was, but suddenly, I just felt a change in the air, a shift of energy. The hair on the nape of my neck stood on end, and I turned slowly to look at James. He had his phone to his ear, but he watched me. His eyes were…haunted, as though he’d just learned of a loved one’s death.
I moved to him, removing my earbuds. He just watched me, not taking the phone from his ear.
“Thank you for the update.” He just listened for a long time. “Yes, it is. Keep looking into it. And double your search efforts.” He hung up after that, but watched me almost warily.
I perched on the desk facing him, his laptop near my hip.
“What’s happened?” I asked, knowing with a certainty that something had.
“My investigators just found out from the police that your father has a warrant out not just for assault and battery, but also for murder.” He just stared at me for a long time, a torment in his eyes that was becoming familiar to me. Those dear eyes.
I cupped his cheek, bracing myself. “Yes, I know,” I told him reluctantly.
“I let a murderer lay his hands on you,” he told me in an agonized whisper.
I cupped his face in my other hand, as well. “That’s an unreasonable way to look at it. I’ve known he was a killer since I was fourteen, long before I knew you, and he’s laid his hands on me many times since then.”
He blinked at me, as though my words were beginning to register past his shock and fear.
“You knew he had killed someone?” he asked.
I nodded, my mouth tight, my chest aching. “I’m the one who reported him to the police, though I was nearly a decade too late. It was my mother that he killed. I was the only witness. I was standing close enough to touch her when he did it. I lied to the police for him for all these years. But after this last attack, I realized that I couldn’t live like that anymore. I can’t run anymore, even if it means he kills me, too.”
His eyes were so panicked and vulnerable that, unwillingly, I felt my own fill suddenly with tears. It was hard to believe I’d gone years without crying before I met James. But the things he made me feel had opened a floodgate, and the damned thing wouldn’t close.
I continued, wanting to get it all out. “I felt so guilty, for all of these years, for dishonoring her memory, for helping her killer run free, but inside I was such a scared child that I just couldn’t go back to the police. After he killed her, they just took his word at face value, never even interviewing me in a separate room from him, and I knew that he would kill me if I told. I was absolutely certain that not even the police could stop him. Even years later, when I hadn’t had contact with him at all, I tried to go to the police, but just got cold feet every time.”
I brushed his hair out of his stricken face with a soft touch, wanting to comfort the things I saw in his eyes so clearly. It was such a reflection of my own torment. His soul was a mirror of my own. Perhaps his insane claim that we were made for each other wasn’t so very far off the mark. I had known him for such a short time, but sometimes I felt I could read him so perfectly, so naturally, that it astounded me.
“You can’t bear the burden of protecting me from my father,” I told him gently. “No one can. And you couldn’t have known that he would seek me out to threaten me to stay silent, because you didn’t know about my mother, of course. But you are responsible for helping me to find the strength to finally tell the truth. Thank you for that.”
It nearly broke me when one lone tear rolled down his cheek. “It just keeps hitting me, over and over again, that I really did come close to losing you forever. I can’t bear the thought.” His voice was a rough whisper. “And he’s still out there, loose, so you’re essentially in as much, if not more, danger than ever.
I’m glad you got to finally tell the truth, but it still terrifies me what that truth might mean for you.”
I traced the tear down his cheek, catching it right at his perfect jaw. He didn’t seem bothered by the tear. He was so much braver than I with his feelings, I knew, but he still managed to surprise me with his depths.
I tried to put myself in his shoes briefly. If his uncle was still alive, and capable of hurting him, even killing him, but just lay in wait for the right opportunity…It would make me insane. But could James feel for me what I felt for him? I just couldn’t picture it, even though he obviously felt at least something.
Neither of us seemed capable of working after both of our emotional outbursts.
We ate dinner in silence. It was a spicy chicken chili. I ate quickly, polishing off the comfort food without tasting it properly.
We went to bed early, James mentioning that we needed to rise early to get a proper ride in, beating the worst heat of the day.
I got ready for bed with little comment. I felt as though I hadn’t slept for days as I lay on his exquisitely comfortable bed and closed my eyes. I sighed in contentment when I felt James wrapping himself around me.
I swiftly drifted into a deep and peaceful sleep.
James woke me up with a light kiss on the forehead. I blinked awake, surprised to find him already dressed in clean riding clothes and leaning over me. He began to dress me without a word.
My riding clothes were much different this time. My tight pants were made up of a thin black material, not much thicker than tights, and reached just past my knees. I took note of the fact that he didn’t bother with putting any panties on me.
He worked snug, thigh-high black chaps onto each of my legs slowly. I touched the soft suede material, running my fingers over it.
He was arranging the chaps over my riding boots when he spoke. “The full chaps are normally worn with jeans. I’ll pack a pair, for the ride back.”