He nodded, smiling, his eyes so soft. “I love you. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for you, but I can’t hold you back. We don’t have to be neighbors to be best friends, just like we didn’t have to live together. This move will be no different than that. We’re growing up, Bianca, but we will never grow apart. I know you too well, and I know that’s part of what is holding you back, so just get that fear out of your head. You’re stuck with me forever.”
It took me an unusually long time to get ready. I tried on a good number of outfits, making Stephan give me his opinion about everything, and changing my mind several times. It was a strange role reversal for us. Something about going to my supermodel boyfriend’s photo shoot made me want to look my best, apparently.
I finally settled on a little yellow Betsy Johnson dress. It was a little fussy for me, with a flared skirt, fitted bodice, and a bit of cleavage, but when I put it on I just felt sexy and cute, and I needed an extra boost of confidence for the intimidating shoot. Shiny red heels completed the ensemble, and I secretly loved Jackie’s flair for outrageous color pairings.
I spent extra time on my hair, blow-drying and then smoothing it out, and even took my usual sparse makeup routine up a notch, with a dusky pink lip, a deep violet shadow on my lids, and a darker color lining my eyes.
I did a little twirl for Stephan when I was done, and he gave me an approving smile.
“Most beautiful woman in the world,” he said, and I knew he meant it, because in his eyes, I really was.
I was actually running early as he walked me out. We said goodbye at the elevator.
Blake was already waiting for me there, looking as severe as ever.
“Be sure to notify security when you want to leave the apartment, Ms. Karlsson,” Blake said chidingly.
I had forgotten. I realized that she must have just been waiting at the elevator, trying to anticipate my actions.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, feeling like a child whenever I dealt with her, which didn’t endear her to me at all. But I saw where I had erred this time. “I’ll call next time I’m leaving, so no one has to wait around for no reason.”
She just nodded like she didn’t believe me, and then fell awkwardly silent.
My security detail hadn’t changed, rather it had been reconfigured so that Johnny was the furthest from me at all times. I found this both ridiculous and a bit of a relief, since he’d hardly endeared himself to me on our short acquaintance.
We took a limo, Williams and Johnny sitting up front, and Blake and Henry taking seats with me in the spacious cabin of the car. We arrived at the hotel early, waiting at the curb, no one saying a word. I watched the building carefully for James.
When I spotted his beautiful suit-clad figure emerging briskly from the front entrance of the hotel, my heart did a mean little flip in my chest.
People stopped and stared even in the short time it took him to pass quickly from the building to the car. He was just so arresting, so impossibly stunning. It had to be a shock just to see a vision like that on the street. He certainly had my attention.
He was in the cab beside me in a flash and his eyes were so soft when they fell on me that I felt like I was melting as I looked at him. His face had changed so drastically at just the sight of me that I felt like my heart had warmed in my chest.
He gripped a hand into my hair, leaning close to me, obviously conscious of the fact that we weren’t alone. He kissed my cheek. “God, did I miss you, Love. Is thirty too young to retire from working? I’d love to just make love to you full-time, instead.” He spoke softly, and by the last sentence, his voice was only a whisper into my ear.
I smiled at him, gripping a hand over his in my hair, pulling that hand to my face, and kissing his palm softly. “You’re thirty?” I asked him, surprised. I’d just always assumed he was younger. I would have sworn I’d heard that he was in his twenties. And he didn’t look thirty to me, though it wasn’t as though he acted young. He did carry the heavy weight of countless responsibilities with unconscious ease on those elegant shoulders.
He nodded, those soft, tarnished eyes smiling at me. “Just had a birthday a few weeks ago. You thought I was younger?”
I nodded, unable to deny it. But I was suddenly distracted by what he’d said, and what it meant. “I missed your birthday?” I asked, feeling just awful with guilt.
He bit his lip, and for some reason it made me want to cry. He seemed worlds more vulnerable suddenly. “Yes. That was a rough couple of days, though you did text me on my birthday, and that helped.”
I was horrified as a tear slipped down my cheek, but I couldn’t seem to help it. “I didn’t know,” I whispered, leaning close. “I feel terrible. How can I make it up to you?”
He traced that tear down my face with a sad smile on his. “Don’t miss another one. Not ever. That would more than make up for it.”
I shook my head. “I wouldn’t know what to get you—what you would want, but I have to do something for you.”
He grinned suddenly, his pretty mouth wicked but his eyes still so tender. “There’s a picture I want you to paint for me. That would be a wonderful gift. But that won’t cancel out the other thing I mentioned. You don’t get to miss any more of my birthdays.”
I nodded, agreeing with him, even knowing that it was insane.
His brows shot up in genuine surprise. “Just like that, you agree? You understand that I’m asking for a long-term commitment from you when I say that?”
I nodded again, and his eyes went wild for the barest second before they became shuttered and he buried his face in my neck. I understood his actions perfectly. I wouldn’t want anyone to see me in such a raw moment, either.
“You mean it?” he whispered.
I was a little shocked at his shock. I had already agreed to live with him, after all. I wanted right then to tell him that I loved him, to reassure him, to express myself with more freedom, but the four other people in the car made me hold my tongue about the deepest of what I wanted to say.
“I do mean it, James. I want so much for this to last—for us to stay together. I’m desperate for it.” My voice was the barest whisper as I spoke into his ear.
He clutched me to him tightly, his mouth at my ear. “I’m desperate for it too. I’m willing to fight for it, Bianca, willing to fight for us, because it will be a fight sometimes. The life I lead can be overwhelming, and the press can be relentless. Can you swear that no matter what they throw at us, you’ll stay at my side?”
I tensed at his words, suddenly apprehensive that he was referring to some undefined threat in the future, something worse than anything we’d been through before. I didn’t know if it was my imagination—if I was just so used to expecting the worst, or if I could read a strange thread of fear in his voice, but I was suddenly filled with my own fear.
“I promise to try,” I told him finally.
“Thank you,” he murmured softly.
He pulled away, looking resolutely out the window, clutching my hand, and I could tell by his demeanor that he was trying to regain his composure. I got it. I did my own window staring as I tried to regain my own customary calm façade.
We reached our destination quickly, disembarking from the car slowly, the security stepping out first, and then flanking us. The whole process still felt surreal to me, but as James gripped a warm hand on my nape, I thought that I could grow used to anything, with him at my side.
The entire photo shoot episode felt strange to me. I knew from the second we walked in the door that I was out of place. I had dressed the part of the billionaire’s girlfriend, but it just wasn’t me, and I felt a little uncomfortable in my own skin as they swept James off to prep for the photo, and I was expected to just stand around and wait.
Everyone was polite enough, asking me if I needed anything, finding me the best spot to sit and watch the shoot, but it all just made me more self-conscious. I was quickly hiding behind my calmest, blankest expression, and I was all nerves on the inside.
The security wasn’t helping, of course, looking severe and intimidating as they positioned themselves around me and stared down the room. I finally resorted to playing on my phone. I saw a missed text from Stephan and clicked on it immediately.
Stephan: I think meeting up with these guys was a bad idea. They are openly hostile and I’m not sure why.
Bianca: Vance is hung up on Javier, I think. I’ve always gotten that vibe. Is there anything I can do to help? Want me to come there for moral support?
I felt my face heat up in agitation at even the thought of someone being mean to Stephan. He was a very strong man—a very strong person, but I still couldn’t bear the thought.
Stephan: Nah, it’s not that serious, B. I’ll prolly just duck out ahead of schedule. I would like to hang out when u r done there, so give me a holler.
Bianca: Of course. You name the time and place, and I’ll be there. Always.
Stephan: Your swank pad, as soon as you’re done watching your supermodel get photographed.
Bianca: You got it. Love you.
Stephan: Love you, B.
I felt a strong urge to ignore what he said and just go and find him and make sure he was okay, but I stifled it. Stephan was usually very good at telling me just what he needed from me, and if he said that it wasn’t that serious—that he just wanted to hang out when he was done, then that was what he wanted, and that’s what I would do.
I was still stewing about it when James emerged from the changing area. My jaw went a little slack and my mind went completely blank.
He was wearing pale gray slacks and a bright white tie. And that was all. His chest and even his feet were bare, his skin dark and golden against the pale fabric of the tie. His chest was oiled and the sight of it literally made my mouth water. His pants were ridiculously low-slung for dress slacks, which meant they were from wardrobe, and not his. I couldn’t imagine him wearing a suit to work that didn’t fit just perfectly, and those pants looked in danger of falling off, and showing his most delectable parts to the room.
I swallowed hard as he strode to me, watching that V above his waistband move distractingly with stark muscles.
He drew close.
“Hello, Mr. Beautiful,” I said, my voice very soft. It just sort of slipped out.
“You shouldn’t look at me like that right now, Bianca,” he said with a fond smile. “Not unless you want a lot of magazine subscribers to get a really clear picture of my hard-on.”
I nodded. He had a very good point, but I still couldn’t stop looking at him. His chest had the finest sheen of oil on it.
I touched it with a finger.
He grabbed my hand. “Now, now,” he said, but there was still a smile in his voice.
I made myself look at his face. Of course, that view was just as distracting. Someone had tied his hair back from his face. His hair looked darker like that, all of the highlights hidden away.
I clenched my fists to keep from touching him. I was finding it so difficult to keep my hands to myself lately. It was a strange new development for me, when I’d almost always found touching and being touched to be anathema.