I felt a familiar firm hand grip my nape. Soft lips that I was well acquainted with kissed my cheek.
“That’s a heartwarming assessment, Love,” James murmured against my skin.
I felt heat suffuse my cheeks in a rush, and a perverse shiver of pure pleasure rock my body.
Typical James timing. Showing up at the most disarming moment possible.
Judith and Marnie were just staring at him, stunned speechless for a long moment.
I turned to look up at him. His hand fell from my nape and we just stared at each other. I drank in the sight of him.
He looked… wonderful. He was dressed in a bright blue polo with dark washed, fitted jeans, and navy running shoes. It was the ‘James’s supermodel take on casual’, I thought. Even his casual looked too sexy for public. I’d never seen him in jeans before. He made them look sinful. I saw just the hint of the top of his tan chest at his collar, and had to stifle my urge to check my mouth for drool. His caramel- colored hair just brushed that collar, and I clenched my hands to keep them at my sides. I wanted to touch him. But touching always led to too much, too fast, with us.
I met his vivid blue eyes. They were intense and unsmiling. His eyes dropped down to my earrings and then to the collar at my throat. His jaw clenched, then unclenched. He ran his tongue over his teeth. My whole body seemed to clench.
“Thank you for wearing those. It was…considerate of you,” he said in his most polite, if hoarse, voice.
He swallowed, shoving his hands into his pockets, then folding them across his chest. It made his upper arms bulge through his fitted shirt distractingly. His chest and arms looked bigger than I remembered, the muscles bulging as though he’d been lifting weights excessively. The material of his shirt looked so soft it made me itch to run my fingers over it. But that light touch would turn to a stroke. And then I would stroke harder to feel the resilient flesh beneath… James’s eyes were running down my body now, not for the first time. His eyes were on my very bare legs, then my cleavage.
“Your legs are outrageous. You make that mini skirt look illegal.” He looked back at my face, finally.
“You look beautiful.” He took a deep, harsh breath, staring at me. It was gratifying. “But isn’t that outfit a bit sexy for a work function?”
I wrinkled my nose at him, then pointedly looked around the room. This was Vegas, and we were in a bar full of flight attendants. My attire was downright modest compared to some of the outfits I saw.
“Did you want me to fuck you in front of all of your co-workers? Because that’s all I can think about, when I see you in that outfit.” His voice was pitched low, but I gasped at his words.
“This was supposed to be a short, casual meeting,” I told him, a hint of accusation in my voice.
He took another deep breath, looking around the room, and away from me. I watched as he counted to ten silently.
“I missed you,” he said finally.
I had missed him too, but I couldn’t make myself tell him that. He still unsettled me too much for that kind of honesty. Instead, I said the first thing that popped into my head. “You were late.”
His jaw clenched again. “Yes. I was in my car, in the middle of the most annoying business call of my life. I think I may need to fire my manager in New York. I didn’t see you arrive, and lost track of time. I apologize. I didn’t want to miss a second of our time together, which made the phone call particularly annoying.”
“It’s okay. We got here early, for once, so I was just surprised to see that you weren’t early, for once.”
“Introduce us,” Judith said loudly.
I wasn’t surprised. The two party girls had shown a surprising amount of self-control in letting us talk quietly for as long as we had.
I turned, giving the women a rueful smile. Jessa moved closer, and we suddenly had the attention of the entire group.
I went around the group, naming all of the people that James hadn’t yet met. I touched James’s arm lightly as I finished. “Everyone, this is my friend, James,” I said, feeling awkward. I had no idea what to call him.
“Boyfriend,” James corrected, and I raised a brow at him. I didn’t know what he was, but it didn’t seem like he could call himself that. “Very serious boyfriend,” he elaborated with a smirk.
I thought I knew what he was doing. He wanted to talk to me in private, and he knew that giving himself that title would antagonize me enough to draw me into an argument. I wasn’t going to bite, though, I told myself resolutely. And he was overly possessive. He would say anything to warn other men off.
I sent Damien a glance. He was watching us, his mouth tight. I glanced away quickly, wanting to avoid drawing attention to the fact that he was staring at us rather intently.
Judith and Marnie began chatting James up mercilessly. I was more than a little surprised that they weren’t hitting on him. Not even a little bit. It seemed more like they were interviewing him. I thought it was kind of sweet. They were the most flirtatious women I knew, but they were going out of their way to be completely platonic with someone whom they thought was my boyfriend. Someone who happened to be the most beautiful man on the planet. It made me see that they were good friends to me. Maybe better than I’d given them credit for.
I had a sad habit of being more cynical than was warranted. Kindness or consideration almost always caught me by surprise if it came from anyone but Stephan. I supposed he was the only person I’d ever allowed myself to have expectations of. I had plenty of friends. Mostly casual friends. But friendship and trust just hadn’t been a connection I’d made. I listened to the girls asking James question after question, even their language cleaned up.
I suddenly felt old beyond my twenty-three years. I’d always thought they were the mature, experienced ones, but I certainly had them beat in the cynicism department.
I touched James’s arm with just the tips of my fingers. “I’ll be right back. I need to use the restroom.”
James tried to walk me to the bathroom, but I waved him off.
“Go say hi to Stephan,” I told him.
He gave me a stern look, but headed in that direction.
Judith and Marnie joined me. The top of their heads were right at a level with my chest. I always felt like a giant when I was hanging out with them.
“O M G, Bianca, that is the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen in my life,” Judith gushed as we made our way across the bar. I flushed, but I certainly couldn’t dispute the comment.
“That man is downright pretty,” Marnie said.
I wrinkled my nose. The word pretty just sounded so feminine to me. And that was so not James.
“He’s good in bed, too?” Marnie asked, clearly skeptical. “That just isn’t fair. If I looked like him, I’d never leave my house. I’d just stay home and fuck myself. If you tell me he has a big dick, I might become either a cutter or a lesbian.”
We got to the line for the restroom, filing into the outrageous crowd that had already formed a good twenty feet away from the actual bathroom.
I smiled ruefully. “Then I won’t tell you,” I said.
Both women started making loud sounds of despair. I laughed at their theatrics.
“I guess good things really do come to those who wait.” Judith said, sounding sad. “I can’t go on one date without sleeping with a guy. And I can’t go two days without finding a date, so I guess I’ll never be getting anyone good.”
“I can’t wait to come either, so I guess I won’t be getting anything that good. That kind of good only comes to those who wait twenty-three years, apparently,” Marnie said forlornly. She brightened, snapping out of it almost immediately. “But we are gonna get a piece of Captain Damien tonight. He’s a nice slice of something good.”
I didn’t point out that he hadn’t even looked happy to see them. I doubted it would even slow them down. They were a persuasive pair.
“What’s with all this tabloid garbage I keep seeing?” Marnie asked, leveling a rather serious stare at me.
I grimaced. “Mostly lies and just horrible people saying horrible things because it gets attention. I’m trying to ignore it.”
Judith gave me a baffled look. “I think it’s awesome. It feels like we know a celebrity now. I think it’s all so fun and exciting. And he’s so beautiful. There could be worse things.”
She had a good point about the worse things, I thought.
I shrugged. “I can’t change it, so I’m adjusting.”
“So he doesn’t have a longtime girlfriend?” Marnie asked. “I read somewhere that he was dating some gorgeous heiress, for like, the last eight years.”
Talk about a mood killing change of topic.
I sighed. “He tells me she’s just a friend. I guess the question is, do I believe him? I’m working it out.
Trusting him is not my first instinct, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with him.”
Judith gestured at my jewelry. “And all this gorgeous bling. I vote trust him.”
I laughed. They were starting to remind me of a half-drunk version of good cop, bad cop.
Marnie patted my shoulder. “Be careful, Bianca. That man looks like he could break hearts for fun, yanno?”
Judith pretended to fan herself. “But what fun, right?”
I couldn’t argue with any of it. It was nothing that I hadn’t thought myself.
There was a group of women huddled close, a few people ahead of us. They were whispering and rudely pointing me out. I didn’t know any of them, but they were most likely other flight attendants that I’d never worked with. I guessed that they’d read something dreadful about me. I ignored them. It was something I was going to have to get used to.
It was all part of the media circus that surrounded James’s life. And I had apparently decided not to give up on the man, despite my better judgement. He still wanted me, and he was a hard man to ignore when he was in hot pursuit.
The group burst into laughter. Even their laughter sounded catty, so I knew they were saying something awful. I forced my mind to focus on something else, a longtime habit I’d used for avoiding unpleasant things that couldn’t be changed.
We eventually made it through the line and got in and out of the bathroom without incident. The group of mean girls had had Judith and Marnie about ready to brawl. They’d gotten progressively louder, emphasizing words like ‘whore’ and ‘gold-digger’, as they shot me strangely malevolent glances.
Whatever they’d read about me, I couldn’t understand how it would affect them, or why they would care enough to be openly hostile to a stranger. It was beyond me, so I didn’t linger on the musings long.
My back stiffened as we approached our group again. James was standing near Stephan and Javier, and they were laughing at something. But he wasn’t alone. Melissa was practically plastered to his side, laughing along with them.
“You notice that bitch didn’t say boo until we left. Then she swooped in like a vulture,” Marnie was saying under her breath.