I smiled up at the pretty boy. He had raven black hair like his father, but with his mother’s adorable curls, and slate gray eyes that studied me intently. “Nishe to meet you, Banca,” he said with a nod. He hugged the top of James’s head, rubbing his cheek against that dark golden hair. “I mish’d you, Jamesh.”

James reached up and tickled the little boy’s knee. Elliot curled tighter against him, dissolving into helpless giggles.

Parker cooked for us all, which I found charming. I knew he was important in the business world, the heir to his family’s lucrative business empire, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he cooked for and served us all.

He and Sophia were clearly madly in love. It was something you could tell just from the way that they looked at each other. They acted like newlyweds, though they’d been married for years.

We stayed for hours, talking and playing with Elliot. James was wonderful with him, rolling around with him on the carpet like he was a child himself.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like kids. I thought little Elliot was to die for cute. I just didn’t think that I was suited to have them myself. I had too many dark thoughts and fears about life that I didn’t think normal people dealt with, and I didn’t want to pass my own twisted baggage onto another generation.

I really liked Parker and Sophia. They seemed genuinely nice, and they really seemed to care about James. I also found it particularly encouraging that the decent people in his life were now outnumbering the crazy bitches.

I was troubled as we left, though. Seeing James interact with Elliot had only made it clearer that he wanted his own children.

“James, I’m not sure that being a mother is something I’m suited fo—“

He pulled me against him, covering my mouth with his hand. He softened the gesture by kissing the top of my head. He murmured into my ear just before the elevator door opened. “It doesn’t matter, Love. We have all the time in the world to decide, and I’ll let the decision be yours alone. I can’t live without you. That’s all there is to say about it.”

I wished it was so simple, but he obviously wanted children. The thought of being the only thing that kept him from being a father filled me with guilt. I didn’t know if I could be that selfish.

The crazy celebration at Red later that night was just what I needed to snap me out of that kind of thinking. Everyone was in good spirits. Our crew, sans Melissa, was there to see Stephan and I off, since we were the only ones taking the furlough right away, and they all toasted us and wished us well, and made us feel good in general, but sad to be leaving such a fun group of people. Still, none of it gave me second thoughts. I knew that what I was doing just made the most sense for me, all things considered.

The end of my career as a flight attendant was strangely anti-climactic. I worked my last turn on Sunday, and then on Monday, I went from being a full-time flight attendant to being a full-time aspiring painter. It was daunting, but exhilarating.

Stephan and Javier ended up taking the furlough as well, thanks to the rare opportunity they were getting to open their own bar in one of the strip’s hottest casinos. They had plenty of work ahead of them, but not many people got the funding they did, no questions asked. We were all grateful to James for doing something so life-changing for them.

We went to L.A. the night before the gallery showing, staying at the Cavendish Resort property there, which was conveniently located next door to the Cavendish Gallery.

I got a preview of the gallery that night, and I was floored by the wonders Danika had worked. My paintings were shown at their best, the frames exquisite, the lighting in every room just perfect, the paintings grouped together by color, displayed to complement each other in the best way possible.

Danika gave us a tour of the gallery, every room displaying my paintings. I felt the need to hug the woman when we finished, grateful and in awe of what she’d done with my work.

I felt nervous anxiety course through me at even the thought of the event, but it turned out to be a pleasant evening. I had already determined that I wouldn’t read any of the negative reviews about my work. No one was more critical of my work than I was, and I knew it would just wreak havoc on my creativity to obsess about the negative, so I enjoyed the event for what it was; an evening of meeting new people, and a chance to see some friendly faces.

I wore a dark gray halter dress that I felt flattered my figure, and James wore a matching tux with a light blue tie.

James stayed on my arm for the entire evening, the perfect, attentive escort. And of course, the most expensive arm candy on the face of the earth.

I even sold some paintings, which I’d thought was highly unlikely when I saw how they’d been priced. Some of the larger ones had gone for over fifty thousand dollars. It surprised me so much that I was a little in shock when Danika gave me the news. She catalogued every single painting sold for me, telling me who had purchased what and for how much.

She hugged me, beaming. She had become the biggest cheerleader for my work, and I was so grateful for that. She was a steady kind of woman, and so obviously one of substance, with clout in the art world. Having someone like that back my work with such sincerity was a confidence booster that I needed in a very fundamental way at this stage in my career. James and Stephan were fans of my work, but having a professional supporting my work, someone who wasn’t my best friend or my boyfriend, was a boon that I wouldn’t soon forget.

Some of the much smaller paintings sold for around the ten thousand dollar mark. Danika informed us of this with a disclaimer, “This is only because this is your first show. At the next one your work will earn bigger price tags; I guarantee it. You’ll see numbers at least double or triple what we’re seeing tonight.” This floored me. I had thought that the prices were over the top for this one…

Frankie was there. She had Tristan, and her girlfriend, Estella, in tow, as threatened. I recalled Tristan’s description of Estella as a little Latin fireball, and I knew within moments of meeting Estella that it was apt. She had thick, wavy black hair that fell nearly to her waist, an hourglass body that wouldn’t quit, and a sassy attitude that was fun, flirtatious, and over the top. She and Frankie had visible chemistry, sharing telling looks and comments that could have made even James blush.

Tristan, Frankie, and Estella hit it off with Stephan and Javier, and the five of them spent a lot of the evening talking and laughing, making the entire event more fun.

We observed one of those volatile moments when Danika and Tristan shared the same air, just in passing, and it was as intense as the first time we’d seen it. James and I shared a look when Danika took her stiff, polite leave of him. As much as Danika may have wanted it to be different, there were still strong feelings between those two. But baggage could be a powerful thing, and feelings weren’t always enough.

I had invited my half-brother, Sven and his girlfriend, Adele, and I was flattered and pleased that they were able to make it.

Adele looked like a model, with the right height and build, but not the over the top beautiful kind. She was no Lana. She had the sort of nondescript good looks that probably got her a lot of work, since it made her more versatile. Her hair was light brown, hanging straight to her shoulders, her eyes a nice, soft brown.

She had a sweet smile, and she was very present, like she was happy to be just where she was. I liked her. When Sven had said he was dating a model, I had pictured the vacant-eyed, narcissistic type, and Adele far exceeded my expectations, unfair as they may have been.

Blake and company weren’t shadowing my every step, since the guest list was very exclusive, and they were guarding the entrances and exits doggedly. I thought it was nice to be able to go to the bathroom without having a shadow, although James did close to the same thing, walking me down the hallway to the gallery’s restroom, and waiting for me diligently in the nearest showing room.

I was finishing when the bathroom door opened and closed, then opened again.

“Now you’re following me?” an agitated female voice asked.

I recognized it instantly as Danika.

“If that’s the only way you’ll talk to me, then yes,” a man answered.

I recognized that deep, gravelly voice, as well. It was Tristan.

“We have nothing to talk abo—“ Danika began.

“I still think about you every single day,” Tristan interrupted harshly. “Let’s talk about that.”

I held perfectly still, now officially eavesdropping from inside of a bathroom stall.

“Oh, please. Take your guilt and get the fuck away from me, Tristan. I want nothing to do with it.”

“The guilt isn’t what I was talking about,” he said, his voice low and raw. “It’s you I think about. Always you.”

She snorted inelegantly. It was very un-Danika-like. “Please! You stopped trying to call me years ago. I haven’t heard a word from you since right after rehab, when you went on your repentance tour.”

“I didn’t trust myself, Danika. I needed my sobriety. I’m nothing without it, and you were a lovely trigger for me. That look in your eyes, after all that I’d done… The way you looked at me like I was scum, and knowing that I deserved all of your antipathy. I knew that if you looked at me like that again, I’d hit rock bottom, and this time I wouldn’t come back from it.”

“I’m with someone, Tristan,” she said brusquely.

“And if you weren’t? Would you be willing to talk to me—to spend time with me, if you weren’t with someone?”

“No! Bad things happen when we get together, Tristan. You and I are nothing but trouble. Time hasn’t changed that. Please, just stay away from me.”

I heard movement and then Tristan’s agonized whisper, “Danika, I’m so sorry. I’ll never stop missing you. You were my best friend. Can you ever forgive me for what I did?”

Danika’s answer was quick, sure and final. “I forgave you a long time ago, Tristan, but I will never forget. Please keep your distance.”

The door opened and closed. Twice. I waited a few more minutes before coming out, feeling guilty for being so nosy. I should have said something the second I heard them talking, but instead, to spare us all an awkward moment, and yes, because I was curious, I’d overheard that painful and personal exchange.

I compounded my sins by immediately telling James what I’d heard. I wanted to hear his take on it.

His brow furrowed and he shook his head. “I really don’t know what happened between them. Frankie is close friends with both of them, but even she won’t talk about it. I assume they used to date, because Tristan is so obviously in love with her, but even that is speculation on my part. And I know that he had something to do with the injury that gave her that limp, but that’s all. I don’t know what caused that injury, or what his part was in it. He just mentioned to me once that Danika used to be an amazing dancer, and that he’d ruined it for her.”

“That’s awful,” I said.

He nodded. “Yes. There’s a lot of bad baggage there, but what he said to you at lunch the other day was actually the most I’ve heard him talk about it in one sitting. Neither of them are forthcoming about it. We’ll probably never know all of the ugly details.”

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