He had the nerve to grin.

His gaze shot to a spot behind me, and in an instant that grin was gone, replaced by a very careful, very blank mask. It worried me. I didn’t want to see what had bothered him enough to close him off so quickly.

I turned, a feeling close to dread in my stomach, and sure enough, it was justified. Jules was less than ten feet away, clearly making her way to us through the crush.

James moved in close to me, tilting his head closer to my ear. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know she would be here.”

“I’m not avoiding her,” I told him, my eyes never leaving the ravishingly beautiful woman.

She was stunning in a cream silk gown. Her shoulders were perfect and delicate in the classic sleeveless gown, her skin a perfect dusky shade against the pale silk. My own shoulders were broad and bony and pale. Her cleavage was perfect, showing just enough to be tasteful and sexy. My own cleavage felt vulgar in comparison. Fair or not, I hated her.

“That’s for the best, in general, I suppose,” James said quietly into my ear. “I can see from here, though, that she is determined to start trouble for us. Please, my love, don’t let her get to you.”

I took deep breaths, not answering. The last time I had seen the woman, I had been devastated by the things she had implied about her relationship with James. If I could trust James, and I was beginning to, this woman had to be close to crazy, planting stories to the press about their fictional romantic love affair. I was bound and determined not to let her ruffle my feathers. She wasn’t worth it, even if she was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen. I despised her for that, for being so close to the female counterpart to James’s impossible beauty.

Jules gave us what appeared to be a truly genuine smile as she drew close. “James! Bianca! How lovely to see you both.” She air kissed both of our cheeks.

Our responses and postures were nearly identical as she leaned close to us both. Stiff and distrustful.

James held me to him with a hard arm around my waist, his hand snaking to grip my hip firmly. One side of the front of his body pressed into my back.

I thought resentfully that Jules even smelled divine as she pulled back with a smile on her blood red lips.

“Give it a rest, Jules. I know about the stories you’ve been planting. Just what did you hope to accomplish with any of it? And bringing her here? What are you doing? Why waste so much energy?

Just for pure spite? Or are really so addicted to staying in the headlines?” James spoke in a cold, disdainful voice that somehow managed to be bored. Jules’s smile barely slipped, but I sensed how his disdain crushed her as I looked into her gray eyes.

She’s in love with him, I thought. I shouldn’t have been surprised, all things considered. And of course, the largest consideration was the man himself. Who wouldn’t be in love with him?

I hadn’t noticed the second woman until James mentioned her, though it was hard to believe that anyone could overlook the stunning woman. Perhaps it was her size. She was very petite, maybe five feet tall, with curly black hair that hung loose to her waist.

Her face was devastatingly beautiful. Even Jules was no match for this woman. She had the face of an angel, her eyes a clear blue that stood out on her dusky skin. That dusky skin was nearly the same shade as the woman who stood so close to her side. In fact, their skin tones matched perfectly enough to make me think they could be sisters. Either that, or they’d used the same spray tanner. If so, it was worth every penny.

She wore a crimson dress that matched her pouty bow-shaped lips. It was a classic style that matched Jules’s gown almost perfectly, down to the silky material, one of them red, one of them white, as though they had planned it. An angel and a devil. They were holding hands, and I knew this woman was trouble for me. Just knew it.

It was probably the way her focus never wavered from James. As though he had trained her never to look away from him… “Bianca, dear, this is Jolene. Jolene, Bianca. I know you were dying to meet her. What do you think?”

Jules addressed Jolene.

Jolene shrugged a lovely shoulder, her gaze never leaving James.

“Hello, Mr. Cavendish,” she said softly. Her voice was almost breathy and bled over-the-top sexy vibes across the scant feet separating them.

I looked at James, almost scared to see his reaction to the stunning woman.

He gave her a stiff nod, his eyes cold and unreadable. “Jolene.”

Jules ignored all of the awkwardness, beaming at me as though we were longtime friends. “You and Jolene have a lot in common, Bianca. I bet you can guess at some of it…”

The hand on my hip had turned into an absolute death-grip. “Well, we’ve had about enough of the immature games for tonight. Please excuse us, ladies. Ah, perfect. I think I see your brother, Jules.” I got a fleeting glance of the near-panicked expression on Jules’s face as James tugged me away. She was searching the crowd, looking none too happy.

I didn’t have time to ask James any questions about the odd exchange, and the conclusions I’d drawn, before he was introducing me to a stunning man who I knew at a glance had to be Jules’s brother. They could have been twins, though he was much taller and broader. “Bianca, this is my good friend, Parker.

Parker, this is my Bianca.”

The man smiled warmly, much as his sister did, though I thought his smile might actually be genuine.

“So good to meet you, Bianca. James has instructed me not to scare you off, but I would like to thank you for finally getting him to settle down. My wife and I would love to have you both over for dinner. At your convenience, of course. You should see James with our two-year-old. You’ll get baby fever at a glance, I guarantee it.”

I was still stiff and upset from the exchange with Jules and Jolene, and this only made me tense up even more. I simply had no idea how to respond to such a statement. Didn’t even know where to begin.

James just sighed. “That’s not a great way of not scaring her off, Parker. Of course, it doesn’t help that we just ran into your deranged sister. She’s being crazier than ever, by the way. She’s here with Jolene.”

Parker began to scan the crowd at that. “That little brat. What the hell is she doing, anyways? What does she hope to accomplish? She’s only making it so you’ll never want to speak to her again. I’ll have a word with her. Which way did she go?”

James pointed in the direction we had come from, and Parker was off in a flash. James grinned at me.

“He’ll lecture her all night.”

I couldn’t reply as yet another woman approached us, her smile friendly and warm. She was maybe five seven, with curly white-blond hair clipped up in an elegant style. She was classically beautiful, with even features and soft pink lips. The color of her soft pink gown suited her perfectly. It was one shouldered and mermaid style, with fluffy layers of taffeta making it move playfully as she walked. I didn’t think many women could have pulled the style off. She had a very slim figure, and moved with absolute confidence in her own skin. I thought that Jackie would love to dress that figure.

She walked directly into James’s arms for a long embrace. I watched the exchange with the cool mask I had adopted for the evening, taking a careful step away from them. I wondered what the odds were that James somehow hadn’t slept with this lovely woman. I was guessing not good. I was happy to be wrong.

She pulled back finally to smile at us both, looking back and forth between us. She smiled, her gaze finally just settling on me. “You must be Bianca. I’m so happy to meet you. I’m Parker’s wife, Sophia.”

I smiled back, but I knew it was stiff. I had become too guarded to even try to adopt a real smile.

“Pleased to meet you, Sophia.”

“Jules is at it again. Parker has gone off to try to talk some sense into her. She and Jolene came here together.”

Sophia grimaced. “That little fool.” She looked at me, reaching out to touch my arm reassuringly.

“Jules puts on a good show, but she is basically a society princess who’s spoiled to the point that she’s never had to deal with the notion that she can’t have everything she wants. She’s being particularly dense about the fact that she can’t have James. It drives Parker and I crazy that, to this day, their daddy gives her everything she wants. She’s never had to work a day in her life, and she has way too much time on her hands to cause trouble.”

Sophia looked at James. “Parker is seriously considering telling their daddy about some of the things she’s done. She’s got her parents half sold on some of her delusions about you two. As though she’s been holding a torch all these years, as opposed to the truth, which is that she’s always done whatever the hell she wants, with whoever she wants, male or female. Hell, she made a pass at me when Parker and I became engaged. The fact is, she’s thinks she’s in love with you, but that’s only because she’s too selfish to know what love actually is. And you’ve always been clear about how you felt.” She took a breath after that little speech. I just blinked at her. Not many people were so open at a first meeting.

“Anyways,” she continued, “don’t be surprised if you see Jules and Parker’s parents and it’s a touch awkward. They have no notion of what’s actually going on.”

James sighed heavily. “I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. Perhaps I should have a word with them myself. The things she’s been telling the gossip mags is unacceptable.”

Sophia blanched. “Yes, you’re absolutely right, but I think Parker should be the one to speak to them about all of it. I’ll make sure he does that sooner rather than later.”

James nodded, but he did not look happy about it.

Sophia seemed to spot someone in the crush behind us. She kissed me on the cheek. “Please, you have to come have dinner at our house sometime. I promise the talk will be about more pleasant things.” I nodded rather stiffly before she strode away.

James watched her go, waving at whoever she was joining. I guessed it was Parker, though I didn’t turn to look. He studied me for a long time, looking solemn and a touch worried. “Are you okay, Love?”

I just studied him, my chest feeling tight and achy. “Jolene was your submissive,” I said, my voice very soft.

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

His mouth tightened and his jaw clenched, but he didn’t look even a little surprised that I had guessed.

“Yes, she was. Past-tense. Please, let’s not talk about it here. I’ll tell you anything you want to know, but later.”

I thought of him doing all of the things that he did to me to that perfect creature, and I felt sick. How could I compete with someone so beautiful? And how could he want me for long, when he had a woman like that, still so obviously infatuated with him? The thought was daunting and demoralizing.

He gripped my nape firmly. My gaze had gone a little glassy with my thoughts, but I looked back at him squarely. His face was composed, but there was trouble in his eyes.

“Please don’t think like that,” he said, his voice quiet but pained.


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