I nodded. That seemed for the best. I only hoped he meant it.

It was like he read my mind. “I know you won’t trust me right away. That’s just not how you work. But I hope that you will eventually. I intend to prove myself. This is it for me, Bianca. Stephan is the real deal, and if he wants me, I’m sticking around.”

He moved into me, wrapping his arms around me tightly. It should have been awkward, since I was sitting and he was standing, but somehow we fit just right. I hugged him back.

“I hope so, Javier. You know, the first time you guys went out he came home with this dreamy look on his face. He was so happy. I know you think I haven’t been a fan of yours, but I became a fan that night. There’s nothing I’d love more than for Stephan to be with someone that makes him that happy. And you shouldn’t downplay his feelings for you. He pined for you too, Javier. I know a lot of guys have a crush on him, but you’re the only one he sees. Trust me on that. And I’ll be eternally grateful to you for helping him to see that he doesn’t need to hide who he is anymore, or who he’s with.”

He squeezed me tighter. I hugged him back.

Javier laughed. “Look at Stephan,” he said. “Us hugging has made his day.”

I pulled back to look.

Stephan was across the lounge, standing next to Jessa, grinning at us like he’d just been granted a wish.

Javier toasted him with the dark red martini that the bartender had left for him on the bar while we’d been talking.

“That looks tasty,” I told him, pointing at his drink.

His brows lifted. “Want me to order you one?”

I shook my head. “Alcohol doesn’t really agree with me. I don’t seem to have a spot between dead sober and crazy drunk.”

He held the glass out to me. “Just taste it. It’s a black raspberry martini. It’s Red’s signature cocktail. It’s my new favorite drink.”

I took the glass from him, sniffing it. It smelled good. “What’s in it?” I asked, taking a very tiny sip, and, tasting it, a slightly bigger one.

“Chambord, raspberry vodka, and blood orange juice.”

“It tastes awesome. What’s Chambord?”

“Raspberry liqueur. To die for, right? Best tasting drink ever.”

I nodded. “So good.”

I felt a hard body press against me from behind, and I stiffened. I handed Javier his drink.

“How many of those have you had?” James purred in my ear. He dug a hand into my hair, gripping a tight handful of it into a fist. His other arm snaked around my waist from behind, gripping a hip in his hand.

His tone was silky smooth, but I still heard the menace in it.

“None,” I told him calmly. “Javier just let me have a taste of his.”

“Are you going to drink tonight?” he demanded.

I hadn’t been planning on it, but his tone and his attitude almost had me changing my mind.

“I hadn’t been planning on it,” I said finally.

“That’s good,” he said, smooth as silk. “You know I don’t care for alcohol. And I won’t fuck you mindless when you’ve been drinking.”

My eyes shot to Javier. James hadn’t bothered to lower his voice, but the other man hadn’t seemed to notice.

James turned me in his arms, his hold unbreakable. He tilted my chin up until I had a clear look at his tarnished eyes. “Tell me something,” he began in that silky tone. “Is it romantic or psychotic when I say that I’ll never let you leave me?”

I studied him. I just couldn’t tell if there was even a hint of humor to his words when he was in this mood. “I suppose that would depend on whether I’m trying to leave you or not. If I never tried, it’s romantic, and if I ever did, and you didn’t let me, definitely psychotic. Why are you trying to scare me, James?” My voice was steady and calm. I would cope with this. I would not run just because he was acting so strange.

His smile was a bitter twist to his pretty mouth. I didn’t like it a bit. It spoke of secrets and fears. “I’m not trying to scare you, Love. I mean to keep you. I’m just trying to gauge how badly you want to be kept.”

“I want you to tell me what’s going on. Is it something to do with that conversation you had with Roger?”

His brows shot up. “So happy you asked about Roger. I just finished having a meeting with him, and he’s dying to meet you, so he’ll be here shortly. You’ll like him. Very nice man.”

I traced a finger down the smooth plane of his cheek. I rubbed at a spot there where it dimpled when he smiled. “So you refuse to tell me? Is that how it’s going to be with us?” I asked him.

The mask he’d been maintaining slipped for an instant, giving me a glimpse into raw, desperate eyes.

“No, Bianca. I want us to share everything. I mean that. Will you just give me time?”

“Will you stop acting like the world is about to fall down around us?”

“Yes, of course. If I know that you’re devoted to me, and devoted to us staying together, it will help immensely.”

“I’ve told you how I feel. But you can’t make me depend on you so quickly, so desperately, and then close yourself off. I can’t take that, James. It raises all of my defenses—sets off all of my alarms, when you act scared and secretive.

He nodded. “Yes. I’m sorry. I’ve been on edge with a crucial negotiation. It is a lose-lose type of scenario. I’ll try not to take it home with me anymore. Ah, here comes Roger.”

Roger was an attractive man, with slate gray hair and a face that looked like it had been lined and weathered with smiles rather than frowns. He was a fit man, maybe in his early fifties. His smile was big and sincere as he approached us.

“Leave it to James to drag me clubbing in my fifties,” he said by way of greeting.

I smiled at him. He held out a hand, and I pulled back far enough from James to shake it.

“I’m Roger, an old friend of the family. And you’re Bianca. I’ve heard so much about you. I begin to see why my young friend has turned over a new leaf.” His tone was rich and warm with sincerity.

A waiter approached our group, looking nervous and anxious. James leveled a hard stare at him that made the waiter’s anxiety understandable.

“Mr. Cavendish, sir. Jeff, the manager, needs a moment of your time.”

James watched the other man, his cold stare the epitome of intimidation. “Really? He needs my presence right now? Does he think that I’m here for business?”

“No, sir. He knows you are here, uh, socially. He said it was very important.”

James smiled a sharp smile that was all perfect white teeth. It was scary. “Tell him I’ll be with him momentarily.”

He nodded at Roger, kissing my cheek roughly. He looked agitated, his jaw clenched. “If you’ll both excuse me, I’ll be back in a moment. This had better be good.”

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Mr. Curious

We watched him stride away.

Roger spoke when he was a good distance away. “Pardon my bluntness, Bianca, but are you at all aware of James’s past?”

I turned to look at him, meeting his eyes very steadily. “What are you referring to exactly?”

He sighed, looking uncomfortable. “He was given into the care of a cousin of his shortly after his parents died. I fought this decision—fought it hard, but I was overturned by his family. I had no legal ability to protect him. I only have my suspicions about his guardian, and it really isn’t my place to be telling you this, but in order to understand some of what James has done, I think you should know—“

“I know all about Spencer, if that’s what you’re getting at. Why are you telling me this?”

He studied me. “He told you about Spencer?”

I nodded.

He looked startled. “It’s probably a very good sign that he shared something like that with you. The reason I bring it up, though, is that after he left Spencer’s care, he became a different kid for a long time. He was wild and unruly. I barely knew him anymore. Whatever happened with his guardian, it affected him in a very negative way. I don’t know if you know this, but he used to be quite…promiscuous.”

I felt my eyes harden as I looked at him. “I’m well aware of that. Trust me when I say that it’s been brought to my attention many times.”

“So you know how he used to be? Up until he met you, he was…”

“He was a slut. Yes, I know. What’s your point?” I felt rude even as I said the words, but God was I sick of this subject.

“Well…I got the impression from James that he would be quite distraught if some things about his past were brought to light. I was led to believe that he feared that you would leave him if you knew about his former indiscretions, and that was why he was so upset about certain things being revealed. Do you know about his…unorthodox preferences?”

I sighed, thoroughly confused and sooo done with the conversation. “Yes. I’m very aware,” I said, trying not to blush as I kept his steady gaze. Something about the man was just so dignified. I couldn’t believe that I was as good as discussing my BDSM lifestyle with him.

His thick, dark eyebrows shot up. “Well, that’s a relief, though it doesn’t exactly clear anything up for me. Again, pardon my bluntness, but perhaps you should let James know that his past won’t scare you off.”

“Why? What is the point to all this? What’s been going on with James?”

He shot a glance behind me and looked particularly uncomfortable. “I am not at liberty to say,” he said absently.

“Now you sound like a lawyer,” I told him.

As I spoke, a firm hand descended to my nape.

“That was quick,” Roger told James, who was pressing himself tightly against my back.

“It was nothing,” James stated dismissively. “What have you two been chatting about? Why does he sound like a lawyer, Love?”

I turned to look at him.

He shifted with me, not relinquishing the hand on my nape.

“What was the emergency?” I asked with an arched brow.

His upper lipped curled. “There wasn’t one. There was only a part-time manager in need of a demotion. Tell me what you were talking about?”

“That’s a nosy question. Did you really demote someone for wasting five minutes of your time?”

He moved until he was standing close against me, pressing himself against my side. Even knowing that he was doing it to distract me, I was far from unaffected by his nearness.

“I demoted him, and put him on probation pending termination, because he is managing one of the most profitable clubs in Manhattan, and he can’t handle a simple wine shortage. Him wasting five minutes of my time only illuminated the facts for me. Your turn. What were you two talking about?”

Roger cleared his throat. “Nothing important, James. I really do need to get going. I’ll call you if I learn anything new.”

Roger shook our hands, bowing his head politely before turning away.


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