That made Stephan laugh as hard as James and I. “Oh God,” Stephan gasped. “I love that you said that to her. She had it coming.”

We rejoined the party, and I felt more relaxed after the strange little confrontation. I hadn’t imagined that having it out with Melissa would actually turn out to be a tension reliever for me. Maybe I needed to do that more often.

We didn’t tell our other friends about Melissa’s little confession. That would have felt like petty, mean gossip, even if it were the truth. Melissa’s character spoke for itself. I didn’t need to be its messenger.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Mr. Distant

James came home from working on Wednesday strangely tense and quiet. He was intense as he made love to me that night, his eyes full of…something. I couldn’t identify it, but it worried me. And going to bed without him ever clearing it up worried me even more.

My worry didn’t let up the next morning when I woke to find him turned away from me. He was nude, a whisper of a sheet playing low on one dusky hip. Even concerned, I had to admire that sleek play of muscle along his naked side. I never got to see this side of him. I stroked his hip with a hand.

He flinched away, still sound asleep.

My first instinct was to back off, to give him space. I could well understand the need for space. But I was beginning to understand him well enough to know that space wasn’t what he wanted, or even what he needed.

I pressed my body against his back, rubbing my hand over that sexy golden hip. I nuzzled into his neck.

He stiffened, then relaxed against my touch. “Bianca,” he moaned. I had to check again to see if he was sleeping. He was.

“Bianca,” he said again in a rough whisper. “Stay, Bianca, stay. Please.”

I stroked his hip and kissed his neck. “I’m not going anywhere, Love,” I told him reassuringly.

That seemed to help. He relaxed against me and I hugged his back and burrowed into him. It was an hour before he had to wake up, so I drifted off again, still clutching him.

When I awoke again two hours later, James was long gone.

I worked that night, flying to JFK for our usual layover, James occupying his customary seat in 2D. He’d come to the airport directly from his casino, so we didn’t even get to see each other before the flight.

He seemed fine, just a little quiet and reserved.

It was a full flight, and he was asleep before I’d finished my service. I stewed about it, worried about him and his mood swings.

“The crew is going shopping tomorrow,” Stephan was telling me. “Canal Street.” Canal Street was the designer knock-off capital of the U.S. Every crew we’d ever worked with made at least one trip a month there. “You up for it?”

We were eating our crew meals in the galley. I shook my head, chewing and swallowing my food before I answered. “No thanks.”

I had other plans tomorrow, plans that made me nervous and gave me a whole other reason to stew.

He didn’t ask me about what I did plan, and I was relieved. I wouldn’t have had the heart to lie to him, even knowing that he wouldn’t like what I’d decided to do. In fact, he’d dislike it so much that I thought he might even try to interfere. Him not asking made the whole thing much easier for me.

James made it easier on me, as well, when we got to New York. He had the driver drop him off directly at his hotel, rather than going home for a nap.

“There are a lot of things I need to attend to today. I have to get to work right away,” he explained.

“Do you want me to come have lunch with you?” I asked him. “I’m flexible. Just name the time.”

He just shook his head, his face unreadable. “Not today,” he said. That was all.

It was when he just gave me a brief kiss on the forehead, not even looking at me before he got out of the car, that I knew for certain that something was wrong. This wasn’t just a mood.

I tried to take a nap back at our place, but it was no good. I was upset and nervous and out of sorts. Best to just get it over with. Perhaps it could even distract me, for a time, from dwelling on James.

I scrolled through my phone, looking for the contact Jr. I had tried to put his first name into my phone when I’d saved the number, but I just hadn’t been able to do it. Even knowing it wasn’t my father, I’d been horrified to have that name in my contact list.

Bianca: Would today be a good day for you to meet up?

His response was almost immediate, which I found encouraging.

JR: Yes! Anytime. I have a two hour lunch that I can take whenever I want. Just tell me when and where.

I started to text him back then decided to call him. Hearing his kind voice again would bolster my confidence.

He answered on the third ring.

“Hi!” Sven said. “How are you, Bianca?” His voice was as warm as I remembered.

“I’m good. I was wondering if you wanted to meet for coffee sooner rather than later. Like now.”

He didn’t miss a beat. “That’s perfect. Where at?”

I named off a place that I could walk to, one of the major chain coffee joints, so the place would be very public and likely crowded.

He agreed without hesitation.

“I work no more than five minutes away from there,” he told me.

I found some conservative, cuffed navy shorts, with a blue and white striped boatneck shirt. I didn’t want to dress up to meet my half-brother, but I didn’t want to look like a slob either. I completely ignored Jackie’s shoe suggestions, finding a pair of plain navy sandals with no heel to speak of.

I left my phone in the bedroom, and my purse. I only had my debit card with me when I boarded the elevator. That was a nerve-wracking endeavor, since I could hear Blake and Marion talking in another room as I waited impatiently for the elevator to arrive.

I didn’t want security with me for what was already bound to be an awkward meeting, and I didn’t think I was in any real danger, going out to a very public place, in broad daylight, for a brief meeting. If I could just slip away unnoticed, I could be there and back before anyone even realized that I wasn’t asleep in bed.

I had another brief moment of panic as I passed through the lobby. Johnny was there, presumably to guard me. He was leaning over the lobby desk, chatting up a receptionist, and didn’t even twitch as I walked briskly out the front door.

The doorman nodded to me, and I nodded back.

“Have a pleasant day, Ms. Karlsson,” he said as I strode away.

Well, he had recognized me, but perhaps it didn’t matter. James had posted security. Maybe the building’s staff wouldn’t be notifying anyone about my activities. Either way, I was planning to be too quick to garner attention.

Still, I took a sharp turn, walking fast, just in case. I would go the roundabout way to my destination, losing any potential tails. As far as I could tell, I was successful.

It was only as I approached the entrance to the café that I realized that I had no idea who to look for. It seemed like such a ridiculous thing to overlook. Why had I thought that I would just know what he looked like? Because we shared a tainted bloodline?

I was regretting not bringing my phone as I walked through the door. It turned out that I didn’t need to sweat it. I knew Sven at a glance, as he did me.

I froze at the sight of him.

He would have been devastatingly handsome, if he didn’t look so much like our father.

He had pale, beige blond hair, pin straight and clean cut. His eyes were ice blue, but not cold, not like those same eyes were on that other face. His features were even and attractive, with a Nordic cast to them. He had a perfect, clear complexion.

I don’t know how long I stood there, just taking him in, struck profoundly by the recognition.

He had already secured us a table, and he stood as I approached.

He was tall. Taller than Stephan, taller than James, possibly as tall as our father, though more slender than all three of them.

He was the spitting image of the monster that haunted my nightmares, and he was giving me an open, friendly smile.

“Bianca,” he said by way of greeting.

We sat at the same time, just staring at each other, taking it all in.

“Sven,” I said finally.

We went back to staring.

“We could be twins,” he said.

That made me blink, but as I processed his words, I realized that he wasn’t wrong. It was just a conclusion that my mind hadn’t wanted to make on its own.

“We look like him,” I told him.

He nodded, pursing his lips. “Yes.”

And we did. I’d always had a hope tucked away in some distant part of my brain that I somehow resembled my mother. She’d shared my coloring, at least. Though so had my father…

All of those hopes were dashed as I stared at my half-brother, who looked so much like me and my father that I couldn’t deny it anymore.

Sven seemed to read my thoughts, which was beyond disconcerting. “We may take after him in looks, but at least we didn’t inherit his crazy, violent, homicidal tendencies.”

Oddly, that made me smile. “You don’t know me that well,” I told him.

He smiled.

It was my smile, not my father’s. It was a kind but sad sort of smile, and Jr.’s was less reserved than my own. “Bianca, you and I would know at a glance. We’re too familiar with monsters not to recognize them on sight.”

His words made me realize several things at once.

The first was that I would recognize a monster on sight, and perhaps I spent too much time jumping at shadows, and doubting people that didn’t deserve my doubt.

The second was that Sven must have endured so many of the things that I had, living in a house with my father.

“He was gone most of the time,” Sven said. “And he rarely came after me. That was so hard for me, to watch him do that to my mother, and be spared. It made me feel so worthless. It still does. I don’t think I’ll ever be able let go of that shame.”

As he spoke, I registered that looks might be the biggest thing we had in common. He was the open book to my closed one.

“I had to leave her,” he continued. “I was out of there the second I turned eighteen, but she wouldn’t leave. No matter what he did to her, she wouldn’t leave him. It made me sick, and it broke my heart, but I saved myself and left. I haven’t spoken to either one of them since. And now she’s gone. Anyone could have seen it coming a mile away, but I’m still in shock.”

His voice was so open and raw by the end of it that I felt the need to comfort him. I watched my hand cover his, feeling surreal.

He seemed to appreciate the gesture, smiling at me, though that smile died a quick death.

“Did he hit you?” he asked, and I stiffened.

“He did. Often. He treated my mother and I much the same when he was dealing out the blows.”

Sven winced. “That’s horrible. I thought he spared me because I was a kid.”

“He thought that women were worthless. He always made that very clear when he was in one of his rages. I believe that his mother was the one that cut him off from his family’s money when he married my mother, and so he blamed them both for his misfortune.”


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