My heart tried to pound right out of my chest. Because I knew he wasn’t really joking, even though his tone was light. And because it didn’t only make me want to panic anymore to hear him say a thing like that. Now a picture was beginning to form in my mind of something real and sustaining for us. Perhaps what had happened to my mother hadn’t forever ruined any possibility of my own happily ever after. The thought was both encouraging and terrifying.

James didn’t wait for me to answer. He knew me too well.

He kissed my neck. “Start growing accustomed to the idea, Love, and try not to tie yourself in knots second-guessing yourself. And try to remember that I’m head over heels in love with you, and that I’ve never even come close to saying those words to another person.”

“I love you, too,” I whispered back, loving him more at that moment than I’d even thought possible. How could I ever have imagined that Mr. Beautiful could be so incredibly sensitive to my needs? It was as though he’d known me forever.

If I was surprised at how quickly he dropped the subject of the tattoo with me, I was equally unsurprised at how he didn’t drop the subject with Frankie. Even a full week later, at her show’s Vegas Strip red carpet event, James was giving her the cold shoulder.

James wore a black tux with a black shirt and white bow tie. It was very fitted, very fashion forward, very supermodel James.

I wore a little white dress with silver accents. It was short enough to be Vegas appropriate, with a halter neck that I thought was flattering, though the back came up high enough to cover my new tattoo. Unlike James, I wasn’t trying to show it off to the world right off the bat.

Shiny red heels took all of the innocence out of the color of the dress, and James seemed a little dumbstruck when I walked out of the closet in the sexy getup. The look on his face told me I’d chosen just right.

The mood of this red carpet was actually a fun vibe, as opposed to the tenser one I’d attended before. People dressed up, but it was more sexy Las Vegas dress-up than stuffy ballroom. Even Frankie decided to forgo her usual half-shirt, cutoff shorts look and wore a tiny red dress that looked sinful.

It was Frankie’s night, and she’d been thoughtful enough to extend an invitation to Stephan and Javier. James had bought them their own custom tailored tuxes, and the two men were grinning from ear to ear as we all walked the red carpet together.

Frankie rushed to hug a stiff James as soon as she spotted us at the event.

“Will you at least talk to me about it? You can’t freeze me out forever, James,” she said into his cheek.

“Oh, we’ll talk,” he told her ominously.

She just smiled, seeming to take that as a good sign.

She greeted Stephan and Javier like they were all old friends, before moving to me. She pointedly didn’t try to hug me, just bending at the waist to give me a jaunty little bow. “Bianca, the lion tamer,” she said, grinning at James.

I put a hand on his arm, wishing he would just let it go. But James was James, and he would get there in his own time.

Frankie seemed to know him well enough to see that, and gave him space.

We ran into Tristan next. He was looking debonair in a black tux as he posed for one of the photo ops. The photographers seemed to be in a frenzy to get shots of him. I shot James a puzzled look.

“Is he famous or something?” I asked.

James grinned and then laughed. “Or something. He stars in the magic show at the Cavendish property, and he’s the lead singer in a band that had two hit singles last year. It doesn’t make me even a little bit sad that you aren’t a fan of his.”

Tristan turned to us the instant he finished with the shots. He grinned that wicked grin of his from ear to ear when he saw me.

He moved as though to hug me the second he got within our reach, but James was expecting that. James moved in between us, catching the other man in a bear hug and saying something that I couldn’t make out into his ear.

Tristan just threw his head back and laughed.

The two men were of the same height, but Tristan had James beat in bulk. Where James was ripped but elegant, Tristan looked like a linebacker in a suit.

James pulled away from the other man, and moved me very obviously into his body, shielding me. I thought it was ridiculous, but it still made me smile.

I gave Tristan a little wave.

He bent forward in a solicitous bow, but his wicked eyes never left my face, and his smile didn’t falter. He flashed one of his dangerous dimples my way.

“So no touching,” he said in his deep, rich voice. “Can I at least see her tattoo? I heard all about it. I heard her back was lovely, just like the rest of her.”

He was clearly baiting James, but he still got an unexpected giggle out of me. The man was outrageous.

James agreed with me, and he was not nearly as upset with the other man’s comments as I’d thought he’d be. “Outrageous bastard,” he muttered, but with little heat. Perhaps being deliberately baited had made him see how over the top possessive he was being. Or perhaps the two men were better friends than I’d realized. Who knew with Mr. Beautiful?

We introduced Tristan to Stephan and Javier. Of course, Stephan knew who he was. He was the media savvy of the two of us. I didn’t know how I’d been so clueless as to his identity. If he had a headlining show in Vegas, there must have been billboards for him everywhere. I made a note to keep an eye out for his ads.

My suspicion that James and Tristan were actually close friends was reaffirmed at the way the two men joked and generally gave each other shit for a solid twenty minutes amidst the red carpet chaos. Only good friends could give each other that much grief without any real low blows. Tristan had to know about the sex tape, everyone seemed to, but he never mentioned it. Most of his jabs involved talking about how pretty James was, which didn’t bother James at all.

And James never mentioned Danika, who I had discerned right away was Tristan’s own sore spot. Most of the jabs aimed Tristan’s way were comments about ‘singing magicians’, which only seemed to make Tristan smile.

At one point Tristan ran his hand through his hair, then pointedly checked his watch, which looked familiar. “Are you about done harassing me, pretty boy?” he asked.

James cursed, then held out his hand. “Give me my watch back,” he said.

Tristan waved the watch at him. “It’s almost my birthday. Can’t we just call it even?”

James shook his head, grinning. “I don’t like you that much.”

Tristan was handing it back to him when his expression became arrested, his eyes moving to look at something behind us. Something raw moved behind those golden depths that seemed impossibly sad for the charismatic man.

I glanced behind us.

Danika approached. She was looking at us, not at Tristan, but she seemed different than I’d ever seen her, more stiff, her limp more pronounced. If I hadn’t known these two had a history, I would have quickly caught on by the way they changed when in each other’s vicinity.

She wore a long silver gown that hugged her perfect figure like a glove. Her straight, blue-black hair was parted down the middle and hanging down her back. The severe and simple style brought out the elegance of her face, the rosebud lips, the high-cheekbones, and those stunning, pale-gray eyes.

Danika strode directly to me, bestowing a kiss on my cheek. She was unsmiling but polite down to her toes. “So lovely to see you again, Bianca.”

She nodded to James, who introduced her to Stephan and Javier.

“Hello, Danika,” Tristan said softly, after all of the introductions had been made.

She nodded in his general direction, but didn’t look at him. “Hello, Tristan.”

“It’s great to see you,” he told her. “You look exquisite, as always.”

She smiled tightly. “Sure,” she said.

A man approached her from behind, wrapping a hand around her waist and smiling warmly. He was about my height, with medium brown hair and a light build. He was handsome, in a nondescript kind of way, but I thought that he complimented Danika well. They made an elegant couple.

She touched his shoulder lightly. “Everyone, this is Andrew.”

“Her boyfriend,” Andrew added.

She gave us another tight smile, then introduced the group to him.

I snuck one glance at Tristan, but the way he was looking at Danika was so blatant and raw that I quickly looked away. Being around the two of them felt like overhearing a couple’s worst fight. It felt like we should all excuse ourselves and leave them alone to sort things out, Andrew included.

Danika and Andrew quickly made their excuses and moved on.

Tristan quickly followed suit. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to go punch something now, so that I don’t give in to the urge to punch someone.” With that telling remark, he strode away.

“I take it there’s beef between Tristan and Andrew?” I made it a question.

James shrugged. “I don’t know that they’ve ever met before. I think it’s just the beef that Tristan would have with any man that Danika might date. He’s been in love with her since I met him. For five years, at least. Poor bastard.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

Mr. Distraught

James stayed glued to my side almost constantly for an entire week. If I wasn’t working a flight, he was there, and I couldn’t say I minded it a bit, though I began to suspect the reason.

He was terrified that I would watch the video of him and Jolene. He hadn’t asked me not to watch the thing, but he knew me well enough to suspect that I would want to view what was out there for the world to see.

And so I didn’t find myself alone for nearly a week after the sex tape’s release. James had worked plenty in that week, but only when I was working, or when I had someone keeping me company. Lana took me shopping; Stephan sat with me while I painted. Marnie and Judith flew to New York to spend the afternoon with me. Danika dropped in for an afternoon to observe my current projects. I had a constant barrage of friends to keep me company if James had to work and I didn’t, and I didn’t think for a second that any of it was a coincidence.

I was in the New York apartment, painting, when it dawned on me that I was actually alone.

I glanced at the computer in my studio but just continued to paint. But once the thought occurred, I found it difficult to focus on anything else. I knew I’d have to watch it eventually, and it seemed for the best to just get it over with. It seemed like the whole world must have watched that video by now, and he was my devoted lover, so why shouldn’t I get to see it?

I was sitting at the computer and searching for it online before I could give it much more thought. I typed ‘James Cavendish sex tape’ into the search engine. It was that easy.

My gut knotted painfully from the moment I dragged the mouse over the play button. Every instinct I had told me to just turn it off. Some things you couldn’t take back, and watching James have sex with another woman, a woman I’d met, one who I openly disliked, couldn’t be a healthy thing for our relationship. Still, I watched.

It hadn’t been taped in any place that I recognized. I’d expected that. It was a small room with a big bed, and the camera must have been hidden somewhere high in the room, aimed down, and in the corner.


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