Tristan ignored her, turning to address me. He had that kind of intense regard that it was difficult not to return. He reminded me of a certain billionaire I knew…

He waved a hand between James and me. It was a strangely elegant gesture for such a huge man. “I used to have what you guys have. I found a sub once that suited me so perfectly…”

I felt a little shocked at his words, referring to our lifestyle so casually and including himself in that life with a few words. I remembered that James had described Frankie as a Domme as well. I wondered if they had their own club… Did they meet up once a week for coffee? The whole thing seemed surreal.

“All of this other shit I do is just a cheap imitation of that,” he continued. “She was so exquisite.”

“What happened?” I asked him.

He bit his lush bottom lip. I thought that everything the man did came off sinful. “What else?” he asked bitterly. “I fucked it up. I pushed her so hard that I drove her away. If I’m honest, I pushed her away on purpose. Things were getting too intimate, and I couldn’t have that. I was the same as every other addict. Being self-destructive used to be a way of life for me.”

He looked at James. “How’s Danika? She been doing alright?”

James sighed, and I studied him as he answered. “She’s good, as far as I can tell. She’s great at her job. I’m actually putting her in charge of all of my galleries, not just the west coast ones. Beth in New York will have a fit being under her, but I’ve decided that I need to work less and live more, so my best managers are being promoted in a hurry. You should call her, Tristan. I know you worry about her, so just call her, see for yourself how she’s doing.”

Tristan let out a frustrated breath. “You think I haven’t tried calling her? I keep tabs on her. That’s it. I need to know she’s okay, but the woman will have nothing to do with me.”

“Have you tried calling her lately?”

“You know Danika. She won’t change her mind.”

“If you contacted her with something other than a casual fuck on your mind, and used that annoying persistence of yours, I wouldn’t be surprised if she gave you another shot,” James said, his tone idle.

Tristan’s eyes sharpened on him with that laser focus that reminded me so much of James. “Why do you think that? Has she said something to you?”

James shrugged and grimaced, the arm around my shoulder jostling me with the movement. “She’s just…I don’t know, missing something. She’s too reserved, too controlled, too damned disinterested about every part of her life except for work. And she works too much. I know from personal experience that if you make good money and still get the urge to spend the majority of your life working, it’s because something important is missing there.”

Tristan looked very raw as he studied the other man, his golden eyes holding a familiar sort of tarnish that spoke of pain, but that I found beautiful. “Is she seeing anyone?” he asked finally, the words sounding like they’d been torn out of him against his will.

James sighed. “I’m not sure. She was a few months back. I’m not sure how serious it was, or if he’s still around. She doesn’t go out of her way to mention her personal life, and I’m not asking. I just saw him stop by the gallery when I was visiting on business.”

“They’re meeting with her tomorrow. Bianca is having a gallery showing in L.A.,” Frankie spoke up suddenly. “They haven’t set a date for it yet, but I know I’ll be attending. You should come as my date, Tristan.”

He gave her a wry smile. “Your little Latin fireball of a sub would scratch my eyes out for that.”

“So we’ll make it a threesome. She won’t mind that. She might like it a little bit too much, in fact.”

Frankie addressed me, pointing at Tristan. “He’s my straight detector. If I’m lucky enough to turn one gay, he flips her straight again. Bastard.”

That surprised a loud laugh out of me.

Tristan shrugged and flashed a dimple at her. “Just here to help.”

CHAPTER TWENTY

Mr. Playful

We lingered over dinner with the strange pair. Tristan ordered food even though we’d all already finished eating. He made himself right at home without asking, joking and talking to Frankie and me. I liked him. A lot. I liked them both. They were fun.

James was quiet and a little tense at my back, but he made no move to leave.

When we did finally leave after hours of talking, Frankie gave me a big hug. Tristan tried to, as well, but James was there to block him, not even trying to be subtle about it.

Tristan was unfazed. He grinned that wicked grin at me, inclining his head. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Bianca. You are an absolute delight. I’ll be seeing you.”

James didn’t speak until we were in the back of his limo driving home. “You liked him,” he said, his tone bland, but I didn’t believe that tone for a second.

“I liked them both,” I said, rubbing his arm. “Your friends are very nice. It’s nice to see that you have some more good ones. They’re starting to outnumber all of the evil bitches I keep meeting that you felt the need to sleep with.”

He completely ignored the last part of my statement, still focused on Tristan.

“He’s a Dom, as I’m sure you picked up. Purely BD without the SM. You were attracted to him.”

Uh oh. “Well, I’m in love with you. I like him, just like I said. As a friend. He’s an attractive man, I can’t deny that, but that’s it, James. You can’t think that every Dom I meet is going to have some impossible pull on me, just because you did.”

And it was actually that easy. A few reassurances and he relaxed back into his smiling, amenable persona. I thought that boded well for us. The little things were already resolving themselves with ease.

We met Danika at the tourist gallery of the Cavendish Hotel & Casino the next morning. Danika managed both the L.A. and Vegas galleries, which was especially impressive since she looked to still be in her early to mid-twenties.

With all of the talk the night before, my mind started trying to pair Danika and the physically imposing Tristan up the moment I saw her, and it was almost disconcerting to picture the two of them together. He was so massive and muscular that he could have been an MMA fighter. She, on the other hand, was the epitome of delicate grace.

She was maybe five foot seven, with smooth, straight, pitch-black hair that fell to her mid-back. She was thin, but she definitely had curves in all of the right places. She had a pale complexion, but her heritage was very obviously mixed. Part of the mix was Asian, but the rest was anybody’s guess. At least part Caucasian, by her clear gray eyes.

Tristan had been right. No one could deny that she was exquisite.

She was dressed for business in a pencil skirt and a tidy dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up. She wore flats, I realized as she stepped out from behind the podium as we approached. I would have pegged her as a stiletto girl just because she was so painfully poised. I saw in an instant why she didn’t, though.

She had just the slightest hitch to her step as she approached us with a lovely smile. Some old injury, I guessed. It was the most graceful limp I’d ever seen, as though she’d just absorbed the injury and made it a part of her, neither emphasizing or hiding it. That seemingly effortless gait told me a lot about the woman. She looked delicate, but there was steel in her.

“So nice to finally meet you, Bianca. I’ve been privileged to get the distinguished honor of being your first big fan. More will come, though, I can assure you.”

“Hey, now,” James said, shaking her hand with a smile. “Don’t discount my adoration of her work. Remember who discovered her.”

She inclined her head. “Touché, James. Please, follow me. We have a lot to discuss.”

We sat at a large conference room at the back of the swank gallery. Danika pulled out a huge leather binder, and I only realized that it was a portfolio of my work when she flipped it open.

“Let me start by saying that art is my life, and I simply adore your work. It is, however, a rather eclectic mix of paintings. This can be handled in a number of ways. My personal preference would be to divide all of the different themes by rooms, since we have so many paintings to work with, and we will be utilizing every room in the L.A space for the showing.”

I nodded. “That sounds good.”

She looked a little nonplussed, as though she’d been expecting an argument. “Well, that was easy. If all of the issues are that easy to resolve, we can schedule a showing for next week!”

The entire meeting went similarly. Danika had very helpful suggestions about all of the things I needed to green light for the showing, and I was more than happy to defer to her expertise on something that I was a complete novice at.

She was swift and professional, covering details that I hadn’t even considered, until she was satisfied that she had the showing thoroughly mapped out.

James stayed reasonably silent throughout the meeting, which I appreciated. If he had taken over, as he did with so many things, it wouldn’t have felt like it was mine. But working with Danika, seeing every step in the process without his interference, it began to feel real, like I had a career here, instead of a hobby that was being funded by my rich boyfriend.

We went to lunch with Danika after we finished. Sandra, the assistant manager of the Vegas gallery who worked directly under Danika, joined us.

She was a small, brown-haired woman with brown eyes and a rather austere demeanor. If I had to guess, I’d have said she was in her late thirties.

I’d completely forgotten about Danika’s limp until she was moving away from the table to use the restroom. Sandra murmured something about needing to check on the gallery, scurrying off.

“What happened to Danika’s foot?” I asked James.

“It’s her knee, I believe. And I don’t know. She never talks about it, but I’ve gotten the distinct impression that it was somehow Tristan’s fault.”

I frowned. That sounded beyond ominous.

We wrapped up a productive and pleasant morning with Danika, setting up a date the following week, when she swore she’d be well into the thick of planning the showing. I was excited and elated when we parted. The crazy dream that was my painting career felt like it was shaping into something real and substantial.

James gave the staff at his house the afternoon off, and we spent hours swimming in his ridiculous pool. The thing was obnoxious, with fake mountains and fountains, and four different pools, and yes, a grotto underneath one of the falls.

“I didn’t realize we were staying at the Playboy mansion,” I teased him.

He grimaced. “This is actually a part of the house that I did not design. It’s a long story, but I delegated this part of the design to my casino team, and since they knew I’d have to have some promotional parties here, this is what they did. I was not too happy when I saw it, but it has served its purpose. If I’m out of town and the casino needs to throw a pool party for some bigwigs, they do it here.”


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