I was waking up slowly, alone in a giant bed, when I heard the door of the bedroom open. I opened my eyes to a grinning Stephan.
He climbed onto the bed beside me, perching his chin on his palm as he looked down at me.
I reached a hand up, stroking his wavy blond hair. “Mornin’,” I said, my voice still rough from sleep.
“Morning, Buttercup. Javier is out cold, James has left for work, and we are having breakfast in your new, giant-ass bed. Marion is bringing it up when it’s ready.”
I smiled. “That’s sweet. What a nice way to wake up.”
“Don’t you want to know what’s for breakfast?”
I gave him my little shrug. “I don’t really care. The company is so good, the food is kind of secondary.”
We shared a look.
“It always was,” he said. “Remember when the food used to be nonexistent?”
I laughed and nodded, thinking about what a wonder it was that something that was once such a painful struggle could become just a memory—a memory that gave me nothing but relief that we were past it.
“Remember when we lived in that ditch by that grocery store for a month?”
I smiled, again surprised to feel nothing but comforted in the knowledge that that distant time was past. “I do. I remember that we thought we were lucky then, because we didn’t starve there, and no one bothered us, and you didn’t even have to fight, for a while.”
“Are you going to keep your house now that you’re living with James?” he asked, his voice just curious, though I couldn’t imagine that it was an idle question.
“Of course I am. I’ll still be staying there, too.”
“Don’t keep the house just for me, Bianca. Don’t do it just because of our old plans. You won’t be homeless again, even if things don’t work out with James. You don’t need to keep that place to have a sense of security. Life won’t be like that again. We can’t live our lives always thinking that it will—always bracing for it. And commitment for you won’t be what it was for your mother, because James isn’t your father. You can’t keep comparing them, and you can’t keep treating a good thing like a potential disaster. That’s no kind of life. ”
I listened without comment, taking the lecture in the way he intended it. It was a Stephan pep talk, and I didn’t take offense. “I’m working on it, Steph, I really am. I’m facing it and dealing with it, and I’m not running away.”
“So things are good with you two? You’re still planning to live with him?”
I laughed. “Why? Do you think I changed my mind already?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I was afraid that you got all wrapped up in him, and that, in the light of day, you’d panic about what you’d agreed to and change your mind.”
“Well, I haven’t, not yet anyway. That’s got to be a good sign, right?”
He just nodded, smiling.
Marion arrived with breakfast and we ate blueberry waffles in bed and laughed and caught up on every little detail of each other’s lives. We usually didn’t need to update each other, since we were so used to being constant companions, but this was nice, too. He told me how crazy he was about Javier, and I told him how crazy James and I were in general. It was a good talk, and I realized that even if I didn’t see Stephan every single day, he could still be my rock. I hoped he could draw even a fraction of the comfort from me that I did from him.
“Javier and I are meeting up with one of the crews tonight, if you guys want to join us. I know you have that photo shoot, but I thought I’d tell you.”
I nodded. “Thanks. I’m not sure what the plan is, but I’ll tell James. Do I know the crew?”
He grimaced. “Vance and company. Not sure it’s the best idea, but I’m trying to play nice.”
I grimaced right back. Vance was an ex of Javier’s, and neither he nor the rest of the crew were huge Stephan fans. I had always personally thought that was because Vance was still hung up on Javier. “That’s nice of you. Hopefully they try to play nice, too.”
“Javier swears they’ll be well-behaved.”
I nodded, hoping it worked out that way, though ex situations never tended to be so simple. What looked good on paper got real messy when emotions factored in. I had come to learn that fact all too well lately.
I told him about my brother and he was a little shocked that I was going to meet with him. I shrugged when he asked me why. “He sounded…nice. Nothing like my father. What could it hurt to meet for coffee sometime?”
“I think it’s a good idea, but I think you should be cautious. Can I go with you?”
I waved him off. “It will be a strange, awkward meeting. I’ll take security, though, so you don’t need to worry about me.”
He nodded, but he still looked a little worried.
We were both laughing hard as Stephan told me a story from the night before. They had been so excited to get their own driver that they’d gone from club to club, not staying more than twenty minutes at any of them before moving on, enjoying the car and driver even more than the clubbing. My phone rang from the bedside table.
I answered with a laugh still on my lips.
It was James. “Ah now, there’s a sound that I love to hear. How are you this morning, my love?”
“Mmm, good. How are you?”
“Better now. It’s been a…rough morning. What are you doing?”
I glanced around at my rather strange surroundings. “I’m having breakfast in our ridiculously huge bed with Stephan,” I told him bluntly. No reason to prevaricate.
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. Stephan had fallen silent, giving me wide eyes. I noticed for the first time that he wore only boxers and a smile, and I wore nothing but a sheet. It occurred to me, rather belatedly, that our breakfast in bed could look bad to an outside observer.
“I have to say, if you had said any other name in that sentence, I’d be on the verge of murder.”
I laughed. I heard the nervous tenor of it. I felt strangely tense to hear his reaction.
“Tell Stephan I said good morning,” he said, his voice neutral.
I told him.
Stephan smiled. “Morning, James,” he called loud enough to be heard on the other end.
“Give him the phone,” James said into my ear.
I handed Stephan the phone.
I watched him warily but relaxed completely when Stephan began to laugh almost the instant that he put the phone to his ear.
“My pleasure, James,” he said, still laughing. He handed me the phone.
I held it to my ear.
“I have to go, but we have the photo shoot at three this afternoon,” he said. “Do you mind coming by my office before we go? Say, two thirty?”
“I’ll be there,” I told him. “What did you say to Stephan?” I asked. I couldn’t help it. Their exchange had just been too quick and strange.
“I told him that next I’m buying him a house next door to mine for making you laugh like that. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to hear that joy in your voice, even if I’m not the one to put it there.”
My chest hurt a little. I struggled to find the words to respond. He was so terribly romantic, in a heart-wrenching kind of way. “You do put it there, James. I’m not good with the words, but just knowing you makes me feel privileged.”
He made a happy little hum of a noise into my ear. “There you go, making my day again.”
Words caught in my throat. I didn’t even know how to respond.
“I’ll see you at two thirty. Take care, Bianca,” he said softly, sounding just a touch sad.
“I’ll be there,” I told him.
He hung up.
Stephan gave me a pointed look. “If you don’t know that he’s completely in love with you, it’s only because you have commitment issues, and you are flat-out lying to yourself.”
I knew he had a point. Pretending that he didn’t return my feelings in some way was only my way of buying time. Time for what? I didn’t know. It was swiftly getting to the point that I didn’t even want to resist him. Perhaps it was just me trying to slow down Mr. Cavendish’s runaway train of a personality. One thing I knew for sure, though. I would do a lot to keep him in my life now. For better or worse, he was becoming essential to me.
“You worry that the S&M stuff makes you a victim of your childhood, but it doesn’t, Bee,” Stephan said.
I swallowed and he caught my hand, pulling me close, making me look at his eyes, showing me how serious he was. “But if you run from what you feel for James, if you would rather lose him than open up enough to tell him how you feel, it just may. I get that you have doubts, but I just want you to look at those doubts and tell me if they have anything to do with James, with the person that you know he is, and the way he feels about you.”
If it had been anyone else in the world holding me and lecturing me and speaking to me this way, I would have run, or withdrawn, or lashed out, but Stephan saying these things in such a serious tone, knowing that it might make me mad, knowing that I wouldn’t like what he was saying, but feeling the need to say it anyway, had a completely different effect on me. With Stephan, I just listened and tried to find the true answer.
“You’re right,” I told him finally. The way I felt wasn’t going away, and not looking at it directly was just another way I’d been a coward. “You’re absolutely right about all of it. I do need to tell him. He’s been wonderful to me, and I owe him the truth. It’s just the next step that scares me…and also, just how short a time I’ve known him. I feel like real love should take time, or at least, more time than this. I’ve been trying to make my head rule my actions, when my heart has so obviously taken over, but I feel how I feel, and I know it’s not going away.”
“Quit over-thinking it. Just tell him how you feel. It doesn’t have to be so complicated.”
I nodded. “You’re right. I’ve been doing that from the start, and he’s only tried to be close to me, to show me how he feels for me. I owe him my own emotional honesty.”
He stroked my hair, smiling at me in that way he had, like I was the most wonderful thing in the world—like I was family. I hoped my eyes communicated the same thing, because my heart felt it. “Yes. That’s all. I’m done with the lecture. I just thought you needed a little poke in the right direction. I don’t want to see you throw away something that makes you so…incandescent with love.”
I blushed down to my toes, because he was right, and because I’d done a dismal job of hiding it. James did that to me. He was so wonderful that I just couldn’t help it. And didn’t something so wonderful deserve a little leap of faith? Did I really need time to reaffirm something that I felt on such a profound level? My heart already knew the answer.
I clutched Stephan’s hand. “I love you. I have no idea what I would do without you.”