“I live in this building, as well,” she explained.

Well, that was handy, I thought.

She got off on her floor with a dismissive little wave.

“What do you think of Jackie?” James asked as soon as the door closed.

I gave him my little shrug that drove him crazy. I was going for nonchalant, but I ruined it with a dumb question. “Have you slept with her?”

He didn’t get offended, as most men probably would. He never seemed to mind my inquiries about his past affairs. He didn’t like my questions, but he seemed ever willing to give me answers. I appreciated his candor, even if I didn’t always like his answers.

“I have not. We have always been strictly platonic, and we’ve been friends since high school. So what did you think of her?”

I grimaced a little, but not so he could see it. “I’m trying hard to reserve judgement, at the moment. She told me you’ve been friends for a long time, but she seems to be nurturing a vague dislike for me. The feeling is very much mutual, so far.”

His hand gripped my hip almost painfully. “Why? What did she say to you?”

I shot him a look. “She thinks I’m after your money, I guess. It’s what you can expect everyone to be thinking and saying. I’ll have to get used to that kind of nonsense, I suppose.”

He used the tight grip on my hip to push my other side into his rigid stomach. He spoke very close to my ear, as though we weren’t alone in the elevator. “You don’t have to put up with that. We can fire her.

You can fire anyone who doesn’t suit you, for any reason.”

I placed a hand on his chest, right on his heart, where my name was branded. I looked up into his beloved eyes. “That’s not necessary. You’ve obviously been able to maintain a good working relationship with her over the years. Maybe just don’t have her shop for me anymore. I don’t want anything else, anyways. It’s all too much, James.”

“I will have a word with her, Bianca. If she disrespects you again, I’m firing her. She will get a clear warning, but only one.”

I rubbed that sweet little spot on his chest. “People will be thinking that, James. We need to be prepared for it. It’s a conversation that I will undoubtedly be having again and again. There’s no way for me to prove to the world that I don’t want a damned cent from you.”

We arrived at the lobby floor, and he hugged me into his side, a hand going to the hoop at my collar to hook in that familiar finger as we made our way through the swank lobby and to the waiting town car. In the scant space from the building’s doorway to the car, three flashbulbs snapped at us just getting into the car. James ushered me in without a word, crowding in behind me. I scooted across the seat to give him room, but he just followed me, plastering me to his side as the door closed behind him.

He kissed the skin just behind my ear as he spoke. “And yet, it’s all yours, love. Every damned cent. I want to lay the world at your feet. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you. You know that, right?”

I rubbed my hands over him comfortingly, hearing a strange vulnerability in his voice. I stroked his knee, and found my favorite spot on his heart, running my hand over it again and again. “I don’t need any of that, James. I’ve grown to need you. I love your honesty, and your tenderness, and your dominance.”

I took a deep breath, suddenly panicky about the things coming out of my mouth. I had never said anything quite so revealing to him before. “But I don’t need any of that other stuff,” I said firmly.

“Nonetheless, you have it,” he murmured, burying his face in my neck. He began to suckle me there, and I melted. He pulled back abruptly. “I don’t want to muss you up for your first red carpet.”

I was breathless when I responded. “At least I’m not nervous now. I can’t even remember why I should care enough to be nervous. I only care about getting you to touch me again.”

He threw his head back and laughed. It was his happy laugh, and I felt my whole body get soft, my smile as our eyes met unmistakably tender. I didn’t think there was much I wouldn’t do to make him that happy.

And yet I had done so little to make him so. It seemed miraculous to me that my every small gesture seemed to affect him so.

He was still giving me that boyish smile as the car stopped. The gala was apparently very close to his home.

James handed me out of the car expertly, his hand falling swiftly to my waist. He ushered me through the press as though it were a dance, the cameras snapping at us in quick succession. I plastered my most polished smile on my face. It was a photo-ready smile, if a touch cool. I had perfected it at a young age.

Growing up fast and painfully had taught me that smile. Yes, it was polished, but I had earned that polish.

A few photographers shouted out some rather rude comments, but we both ignored them. They were acting that way for a reaction, and it was the last thing I would give them. My smile never even slipped.

James kissed my forehead when we finally made our way into the grand entrance of the building.

“You’re a natural. Those bloodhounds can take some getting used to.”

My mind had already moved past the strange red carpet experience when I saw a doorway into some kind of elaborate ballroom. “Oh, James, I don’t know how to dance. I didn’t even think of it.”

He kissed my forehead again, and I caught the edge of his smile at the top of my vision. “You only need to dance with me, Love. And we know all too well that if I lead, you know how to follow, even without experience.”

I tried to tell myself that he may well be right. Perhaps it would just be that easy. I felt the nerves clench in my stomach nonetheless.

A seemingly endless stream of introductions and polite mingling began almost immediately. I gathered from some of the pleasantries exchanged that this was a gala that his mother had been involved with before she’d passed. She had made the charity rounds, I learned, donating generous amounts of both her time and money. James had mentioned briefly that it was a fundraiser for cancer research at a prominent New York hospital. I tried to say the right things when addressed, but I felt quickly out of my depth. I had never been to anything like the gala before, and I was overwhelmed by all of the affluent company I was suddenly keeping. It was daunting, to say the least.

James, for his part, was a perfect date for such an event, including me in conversations that really had nothing to do with me, and keeping a warm hand on my hip, often sending warm, reassuring smiles my way. He seemed content just to have me at his side. But I just felt awkward, as though I had no purpose there. The introductions quickly became a blur for me. Most of the people I met hadn’t left enough of an impression to put a face with a name even moments after moving on. There were a few exceptions.

After mingling for a solid hour, we were approached by the most austere looking woman I had ever seen in my life. She had to be seventy, with silver hair pulled back into a severe bun, and a navy gown that went from her neckline to her toes, the stark lines showing a sparse figure.

She stood directly in front of us before she spoke. Her tone was icy, her accent crisp and British.

“James. And how are you this evening?”

His eyes were cold as he studied the woman, but the moment he spoke, I detected a note of something I’d never heard from him before. It was almost as if he affected a slightly sneering tone, mimicking her accent just enough to goad her. I watched him in fascination. “Aunt Mildred. I am well. And how are you this fine evening?”

Her brow arched. I thought that to her it may have been a way of answering. She never spared me a glance. “Well enough. I have been hearing things about you, though. Disturbing things. Even more disturbing than your usual debaucheries. Please tell me that you haven’t invited a penniless flight attendant to live in one of your homes.”

I stiffened, but still couldn’t look away from James. How did everyone seem to know that we had moved in together before it had even happened? I had barely even agreed to the arrangement.

His eyes began to twinkle, but it wasn’t a good kind of twinkle. It was as though he had engaged this woman in hostile banter too many times to count, and I thought he just might look forward to offending her. “Aunt Mildred, meet my girlfriend, Bianca. Bianca, this is my charming Aunt Mildred.”

The awful woman just slanted me a malevolent stare, giving me a sneer.

“Now, now, Auntie,” James began in that goading tone, “you had better play nice with my dearest Bianca. I have not invited her to live in one of my homes. I have welcomed her into all of them. And though I know it would break your heart if anything were to ever happen to me, you will be beholden to this angel to cover your living expenses when I pass away, as she will be my sole inheritor.”

I shot him a look. I didn’t care for him putting me in the middle of what was obviously a family squabble. I let my eyes tell him as much. He just smiled at me, stroking a finger down my cheek.

Mildred harrumphed. “I know you like to have your fun at my expense, you rotten boy, but this is going too far. Really, what a ridiculous thing to say. You’ll give the poor chit delusions of grandeur.”

He stopped smiling, giving her a very serious look. “It is no joke, Mildred. Meet my future. Her name is Bianca. Come to terms with it. My advice would be to get on her good side.” With that, he led me away.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

He was tense as he led me away. “Please don’t involve me in that family stuff, James. It makes me horribly uncomfortable.”

His mouth tightened. “Just handle it with the practicality that you’ve handled the press, Love. My family is fucked up to the Nth degree, and you are now a part of it. Trust me, it’s best to face them all head on.”

“Facing them is different than goading that awful woman with lies about heirs or inheritors.”

He pursed his lips, studying me. I could tell that he was debating with himself what he should say to me. “It wasn’t a lie, Bianca. You will be inheriting everything, should I pass. I’ve already begun the process.”

I swayed a little on my feet, feeling suddenly quite light-headed. “Please don’t, James. Don’t say that, and if you’re so crazy that it’s actually the truth, don’t do it. It is the last thing I want. Your family will despise me.”

“I’m sorry to say that they will despise you regardless. They are a spiteful nest of vipers, and if something should happen to both of us, all of the family wealth will be going to my mother’s favorite charities. I know you will tell me that I am too hasty, that it’s all too sudden, but this is how I do things, Bianca. When I’m certain of something, I am decisive about it.” His eyes were steady on mine as he spoke, and we stared at each for a long moment while I tried to process what he was saying.

“You won’t sway me from this,” he continued, “I’m quite set on this course. It only needs to bother you as much as you let it. Go back to pretending that you don’t know, if you need to.”

I gave him a long, level stare. “You’re impossible,” I told him.


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