“How about we have this little chat in private,” Damien said, his tone hard. We all watched silently while he grabbed Jessa by the arm and led her resolutely away.
She went easily enough, just muttering one loud, “Neanderthal,” as they walked away.
I looked at James, who’d been silent throughout the exchange. “Maybe those two will work things out and start dating,” I said hopefully.
James studied me. “Do you want that?”
I sent him a baffled look. “Of course I do. Damien needs to move on, and Jessa would be good for anybody. She’s one of the most open and honest people I’ve ever met. Talking to her is like chatting with a really good therapist.”
“Nah,” Murphy said, getting back up. “Damien’s pretty clear about what he likes from women. He likes to be ignored, not yelled at. She’s not his type at all.”
I gave my little shrug. “Maybe he needs to find a new type.”
Murphy grinned. “Now wouldn’t that be awesome.”
Damien and Jessa never returned to the club, at least not before James and I left, and I took that as a very good sign.
We made our rounds, saying goodbye to everyone at around eleven. James was rather quiet but sweet on the short trip back to the apartment. He nuzzled into my neck, placing soft, sweet kisses there. It wasn’t his usual style, but I still melted.
He made love to me again before I sank into a deep and dreamless sleep.
I was pleasantly surprised the next morning when I realized that he was traveling to Vegas with me that day. I’d known that he was planning to spend part of his week there with me, but we hadn’t discussed when he was flying out.
We got dressed together, holding hands quietly while we made our way down to the waiting car.
“I discussed it with Stephan last night. You don’t have to take the airport shuttle with the crew. It’s at your lead’s discretion, and he gave us the green light, so you can ride with me.”
I just nodded.
The flight went well. The whole day did, in fact. There was a brief moment of tension when James found out that, though I was taking the furlough, I would still be working my regular schedule for at least two more weeks. He didn’t like that. I hadn’t thought he would, but I wouldn’t budge.
“This company gave me an invaluable opportunity that changed my life. That means a lot to me. They’ve asked us to stay on our schedules for two more weeks, and I won’t bail early and mess up staffing in the meantime. I won’t budge on this, James.”
My little speech was impassioned enough that he let it go pretty quickly, for him. Even if he couldn’t understand why I would have a feeling of loyalty towards a company that was on its way out, he at least respected it. That warmed me. He didn’t always understand me, but I could have no doubts that he tried to.
The next few days went like that. Every possible bump in the road gave us little resistance. He didn’t complain when I had to work for most of Sunday, just kissed me a lingering goodbye with a murmured, “I love you.”
Things were good between us. Good was putting it mildly. We were amazing together. Things became so easy but that heat between us didn’t cool for a moment. It became very clear to me just how perfect it could be between us if we just let it. It all felt so perfect, in fact, that I began to get a little paranoid, always waiting for that other shoe to drop.
I told myself that life didn’t just have to be a series of tragedies. Maybe I could just have this wonderful thing, no conditions. Perhaps life would be blissfully smooth sailing from here on out. I wanted to believe it, but a sick tension never quite left my gut, and my nightmares were more persistent than ever.
We stayed at his Vegas home that week, agreeing to stay at my little place on the next Vegas rotation.
On Monday, we went out to dinner with the tattoo artist, Frankie. I was nervous. I knew I’d made a bad impression the first time we’d met, and I wanted to rectify that, but I didn’t know the woman, so I wasn’t sure how.
We met her at a trendy restaurant in the Cavendish Hotel & Casino. I dressed Vegas casual, in a pretty, white blouse, beige short-shorts, and pumpkin orange heels. You could never show too much skin in Vegas, and the heels made the outfit just dressy enough that I could fit in anywhere.
Frankie was warm and friendly, hugging us both and giving me a genuine smile right off the bat. I felt my tension ease. She was going to make it easy on me.
Frankie was wearing a tight gray T-shirt that was torn so short at the bottom that I got a good look at some of her under-boob. Her cutoff jean shorts weren’t much more decent. Her ink-covered skin was well displayed in all its glory.
She caught me looking and smiled. “My reality show is shooting. The producers love to see the ink. I swear they talk me into less and less clothing every season. Next season they might just get me to walk around naked.
I smiled back at her. She had a very nice smile. Her makeup was dark, her lips nearly black. Her look was harsh but managed not to detract from her pretty face. With that endearing smile she was actually kind of adorable. With her corkscrew black curls, she kind of looked like a grown-up goth Shirley Temple.
We hit it off with no problems. Frankie wasn’t at all what I’d been worried she’d be. I began to see why she and James got along so well. She laid the charm on thick; add that to her undeniable charisma, and I saw easily why she had her own reality show. I didn’t like reality shows. I never saw the appeal to watching people that I didn’t like or respect make fools of themselves, but I would have bet that I’d like Frankie’s show.
“What would I have to do to get you on my table, Bianca?” Frankie asked with a charming smile after we’d been chatting for a solid hour.
James made a disapproving noise, and I glanced at him. He was shooting an annoyed look in the other woman’s direction. “Don’t hit on my girl, Frankie.”
She raised her hands in a show of innocence, laughing. She was clearly unaffected by his jealousy. “I wouldn’t, James. You’ve got it all wrong. I just think she’d look lovely with some ink on that perfect skin of hers.”
James looked far from appeased by that. “Knock it off, Frankie.”
She waved him off. “Oh, chill out, James. I’m really not. I have a girlfriend now, and I’ve never been happier. Just let me have some fun.”
I saw his eyes move to somewhere behind Frankie. My gaze followed his. A huge man strode towards us. He was several tables away, but I could tell from that purposeful stride and his intent stare that he was headed our way.
He looked…sinister. And sexy. He had pitch-black hair that hung straight to his massive shoulders. He was so big that I would have pegged him for a football player, or some kind of professional athlete, if it weren’t for the way he dressed. He wore a white T-shirt with what looked like some band’s logo on the front of it. It was so tight that I could see every ridge in his six-pack, and every bit of the extensive tattoos that covered his chest. His jeans looked like he’d been in a war-zone, they were so torn up. His arms were covered in full sleeve tattoos. I thought that he must work in Frankie’s tattoo parlor, since he was so inked up.
As he drew closer, I saw that his hard jaw had a five o’clock shadow that looked like it never went away. He had even features, with thick brows over thickly lashed eyes, a straight, rounded nose, and a mouth made for sin. He was a handsome devil.
He grinned as he drew close to us, flashing twin dimples that were pure trouble.
James cursed. “What the hell is he doing here?” he asked Frankie. He sounded very putout.
Frankie turned to see who he was talking about, but had the opposite reaction when she saw who approached. She grinned.
“Tristan is getting a new tat today. Of course, my producer just had to catch it for the show. They love it when celebrities come into the shop. Your episode is airing in two weeks, by the way.”
Of course he’d made an exhibition out of the tattoos, I thought, as my mind connected the dots.
I didn’t have time to address the issue, however, before Tristan was on us. His eyes were all on me as he reached our table. They were golden and twinkling, disarming really. I smiled back tentatively, clued into a strange tension from James.
Tristan sat at the only empty chair at the table, sliding it until he was sitting almost too close to me. His eyes were warm on me.
“The infamous Bianca. I have to say, I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. James and I go way back. I’m Tristan.”
He held out his hand to shake and I did automatically. James sucked in a gasp when Tristan raised my hand to his mouth, and he was wrenching my hand out of the other man’s grasp before I could react.
“Watch yourself, Tristan,” James said through gritted teeth.
Tristan just grinned that sinister grin with those troublesome dimples. “Relax, Cavendish, I know she’s yours. I was just saying hi.”
“Yeah, well, if you say ‘hi’ again I’m going to break your nose.”
“I’d love to see you try, but I’d really hate to make you ruin your manicure.”
I turned to James, giving him a stern look, and completely ignoring the other man. I rubbed his chest until he looked at me. I didn’t say a word, just watched him, willing him to calm, to keep from escalating a small confrontation into something out of hand.
After a long moment he relaxed a fraction, pulling me until I was plastered against his side.
It was a while before I looked back at Tristan. He was a strange one, I thought, as he studied us intently, his brow furrowed. “Someone told me you’d fallen over the deep end, but I just didn’t believe it. I stand corrected. You’ve got it bad, my friend.”
“What are you getting a tattoo of?” I asked Tristan, trying to find a neutral topic for the hostile men. I looked at him as I asked the question.
“I’m getting a small five to commemorate five years clean and sober,” he said without hesitation, as though he’d practiced it.
I blinked. “Congratulations,” I told him, meaning it. Addiction was a horrible, powerful thing. I’d seen people ruined by it.
“Thank you. I did some bad things when I was using, things I can’t make up for, but having five years of sobriety under my belt still feels pretty damn good.”
Frankie smacked herself in the forehead. It was an attention getter. We all looked at her. “You can say that without adding a disclaimer about all of your sins,” she chided him. “You have every right to be proud of yourself.”
He shrugged, frowning harshly. He was a tough looking guy, but somehow that frown made him look vulnerable rather than mean. “I don’t see it that way. Even with all of the touchy-feely rehab bullshit, I still know that it was me doing all those things, not the alcohol or the drugs, and there are some things a person can’t just forgive themselves for, especially when the one I hurt the most can’t forgive me, either.”
Frankie cursed, pointing at him. I could tell just from the last two minutes that these two had a tough love kind of relationship, but a close one. “I’m calling your therapist just because you said that. You’re supposed to be past that by now, and the fact that you aren’t says you need to start seeing her more.”