“In the near future,” he continued relentlessly. “Say the next days and weeks, you will most likely be given an option for a voluntary furlough, and if that fails to yield enough willing candidates, an involuntary one. The airline will be cutting costs and staffing. Any routes that aren’t profitable will be aborted within the next month. Any other questions?”

I felt deflated by his revelations, though I didn’t doubt for a second that he knew what he was talking about. “Did you know all along that this was going to happen?”

“Yes,” he said with no hesitation. “It was all only a countdown. The airline has been hemorrhaging money from the start. This is the era of discount fares, and your airline was a start-up luxury carrier. Everyone in the industry is just surprised that it lasted this long. Have you given any more thought to your painting career? Just say the word, and I’ll have my people prepare your showing.”

I thought that was rather callous of him. Of the two of us, I’d thought I had the monopoly on being insensitive.

“I have not,” I told him, my voice stiff. “I haven’t had time to process any of this.”

There was a long pause on the other end. “Well, I will leave you to it then. I need to go. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Goodbye, Mr. Cavendish,” I said coldly, wondering at his mood. When I had called him, I hadn’t expected to talk to this callous man.

“Goodbye, Bianca.”

I hung up, feeling a little stung at his cold manner. Was my hesitation about showing my paintings really bothering him this much? Or was it something else? Whatever was going on with Roger, perhaps?

I knew speculating was pointless, so I got to work. It bothered me persistently, though. Not knowing the cause for his distant demeanor left my mind free to run wild with possibilities and paranoid fears, each one more alarming than the last.

I tried my hardest to distract myself for the duration of the flight. It was at least full, my bodyguards in each cabin included, of course. Even full, though, I was left with nothing to do by halfway into the flight.

Damien and Murphy had been uncharacteristically quiet for the pre-board procedures and the flight. I knew they must be upset about the bad news. If they started at another airline, they likely wouldn’t get to work together for years. Damien would probably be demoted to the first officer position, making it impossible for them to work the same flights. Even after he made captain again, it would take time for them to get enough seniority to get regular routes, let alone routes together. I was sad for them. They made such a fun team.

I visited with them in the flight deck for a while. They still joked nonstop and went to great efforts to charm me, but I sensed an undercurrent of tension in the two men.

This was what upset me most about the collapse of the airline. It wasn’t so much my future that I feared for. I liked my job, and I was grateful for the opportunities it had given me, but I was a survivor. Even without James, I would find another way to get by. But the people who had put all of their hopes into the airline for four and a half years, the ones who would be most affected by it, that’s what got me. Businessmen played with their monopoly money while the rest of us rolled with the punches. It made me angry. Of course, there was nothing to do for any of it, so it was a futile kind of anger.

I had a long talk with Stephan on the flight about the expected voluntary furlough. I had made a quick but tough decision about it. I broached the subject with trepidation, but as usual, Stephan only responded with his unconditional support.

He just cupped my shoulders in his big gentle hands, giving me his best smile. “I think that makes perfect sense, Bianca. You were dreading telling me, weren’t you?”

I nodded.

He kissed my forehead. “You should know better,” he scolded softly.

He was right. God, I loved him. How did I get so lucky?

I was tired and exhausted by the time we got to New York, my mind running me ragged with all of the imminent changes in my life. Just when I made one huge change, didn’t it just figure that it would all have to start changing?

I wasn’t sure what the plan was when we walked as a crew out to the pickup spot. James, or rather, Cold Mr. Cavendish, hadn’t said. I figured if he sent a car, I’d take it, if not, I’d go to the hotel with the crew.

He had sent a car. In fact, he’d sent himself, I realized as he met me at the door, taking my bag and my arm without a word. His face was a beautiful mask, his eyes a little blank.

James nodded stiffly at Stephan. Stephan had to stay with the crew for the hotel check-in, so he kissed me on the forehead and said goodbye.

I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to anyone else since James was leading me away as soon as he had Stephan’s assumed blessing.

He handed my bags off to Clark, handing me into the car swiftly. My security detail filed into the car mere moments after James and I were settled. They’d been my silent shadow for the duration of my commute and workday.

“Bodyguards are unnecessary when I’m working, James,” I told him, my voice pitched low to keep the conversation private. “I’m quite safe at work.”

He looked at me. It was the first direct look he’d given me since he’d met me at the door. His face was as unreadable as I’d ever seen it. “I find it very necessary,” he said shortly.

He looked out the window.

I hated his mood, hated his distance, but it still made me want to cling to him. I knew how unhealthy that urge was, and I tried my best to squelch it. Still, I found my hand seeking his knee, rubbing it comfortingly.

It did not have the intended effect. His hand covered mine instantly, pushing it hard into his leg. I couldn’t have pulled it away if I’d tried.

“You in the mood to be pinned to the seat and fucked with an audience, Love?” he said, his voice soft with danger.

I tried to snatch my hand away, but he held it fast. I didn’t answer the ridiculous question, and he didn’t say another word, looking out the window, a storm in his eyes.

“Are you going to tell me what’s going on with you?” I finally asked him quietly.

He squeezed my hand, his jaw working. “Bear with me, Bianca. I am going through some rather trying legal issues, and letting you leave me every week tests every last ounce of my self-control.”

I was silent for a long time, debating if I should tell him about my decision. It seemed rather like rewarding his bad behavior just then, but I had already made up my mind. It just made sense, as much as I hadn’t wanted it to.

The voluntary furlough for flight attendants had already been announced. I’d received the email as we were taxiing into JFK. I had the seniority to keep working even if there weren’t enough people to sign up for the voluntary furlough and it became involuntary, but I saw that as such a selfish thing. I didn’t need the job, not as much as so many others did. Perhaps there had only ever been this solution, and the bankruptcy was just forcing my hand more quickly. I suspected that might be the case, but it didn’t really matter anymore.

“I’ll be taking the voluntary furlough,” I told him.

I saw his hand shake with a fine tremor. He didn’t look at me. I understood that he didn’t appreciate that we weren’t alone just then.

“Thank you,” he said very quietly, in an unsteady voice.

“I’m doing it because I feel ridiculous having more money spent to protect me at work than what I’m actually making. And because there are people that need the job more than I do,” I told him, my tone hard. This was not because of his tantrum. “And I would like to begin planning the gallery showing.”

He nodded, head still turned away. “Of course. Thank you. I’ll set up a meeting for you with Danika when we’re in Vegas. She manages both my L.A. and Las Vegas galleries. She went to bat against my New York team to get your work in her gallery. She’s quite a fan.”

I had a hard time believing that. The idea of having fans was too far-fetched of a concept for me to grasp easily.

We arrived at our place via the underground garage, and James walked me into the apartment and up to our room.

He watched me from the doorway of the closet as I got undressed for my nap.

“I can’t linger. I really do need to get back to the hotel, since I’ll be heading back to Las Vegas with you tomorrow.”

I just nodded, half undressed, my back to him. I felt him watching me for long minutes before he left.

I got ready for bed and lay down to sleep, but it eluded me for a long time. The way James was acting filled me with tension and anxiety. I tried to tell myself that he was just a moody and unpredictable man. That was one of the first things I’d learned about him. But I just knew, deep down in my gut, that it was something bad, something that he felt threatened him, or perhaps threatened us. He had told Roger to offer his entire fortune to protect from the mysterious threat, and I knew that he wouldn’t use those words lightly.

My phone woke me, and even as I answered it, I knew I’d overslept. I had that groggy feeling that I only got when I took too long of a nap.

“Buttercup, you coming out with us tonight?” Stephan asked.

I blinked awake. “Who is us? And where are you going?”

“The crew is going to Red with the other two crews that are here on a layover. They are driving into the city from the airport hotels. A few extra people are coming into town, as well. I talked Javier, Jessa, Marnie, and Judith into flying in for the night. Our morning flight has like thirty open seats, so they’ll have no problem flying home with us. It’s turned into a kind of bankruptcy party. I talked to James. He said that people could crash at your place, and at his hotel. He’s even setting up a VIP section at Red for us. He was supposed to tell you about it, but I guess you were sleeping.”

I had to smile a little at Stephan turning a bankruptcy into a party, but hell, why not?

“We all have to get up so early in the morning,” I told him. It wouldn’t do at all to have a bunch of no-shows in the morning.

“It’s fine. It’s not like we do this often. Everyone just really needs to blow off steam.”

I well understood. I felt the same urge. “What time do I need to be there?”

He laughed. “In an hour. Get a move on, Buttercup!”

I did, showering, blow-drying my hair, and getting my makeup on in record time. There was a food tray set just inside my bedroom door when I came out of the bathroom.

I ate the turkey burger on wheat quickly, impressed with Marion’s efficiency. It was good, stacked with fresh vegetables, a spicy guacamole sauce giving it flavor. Either I was getting used to the fanatically healthy menu, or Marion was especially talented at making healthy taste good.

I cleared my plate in minutes, rushing to get ready.

I wore red. It seemed appropriate for the venue, and I loved the little dress. It draped over one shoulder, leaving the other bare, and the way it hung flattered my figure. It set off my collar just right, and I found the diamond cuffs on my jewelry vanity, which went perfectly. I wore diamond hoops in my ears as well, which may have been overkill, but why not? I had a whole team of bodyguards to keep me from getting robbed.


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