He pulled a small ring box out of his pocket and I gasped on a sob. He opened it, showing me a ring with a large, princess cut diamond, surrounded by sapphires. I realized immediately that it must have been his mother’s engagement ring. It matched the earrings that he’d already given me.
“I’ll love you ’til I die, Bianca. Marry me.” There was no question in his voice. It was all in his eyes, a vulnerability that was as hard for me to resist as his sure domination.
I had been both dreading and anticipating this moment. He had given me clear warning, because he understood me so well. Marriage represented so many scary things for me, it always had, and it was hard to change the way I thought about it. It was hard, but not impossible, not since James had entered my life, turned everything upside down, and changed my mind about so many things.
I was shocked at how quickly I held my trembling left hand out to him. “Yes,” I whispered. I spoke again, making my voice more firm, more sure. “Yes, James, I’ll marry you.”
I traced a tear down his cheek with my other hand while he slid the ring onto my finger. It was a perfect fit.
He stood and pulled me against his chest in one fluid movement, kissing me with rough tenderness. I kissed him back with a hunger that would never be slaked. There was no doubt in my mind that I would love him until my own death. How not?
We made love in the dirt, next to the great mountain’s crater, and with the glorious sunset still bathing us in its light.
I gave no thought to being seen as he tore at my clothes. The temperature had cooled as we climbed higher, and we had briskly layered up as we went. He got me out of those layers even faster. He tore off my pants, just opening my top. He did even less for himself, just pulling his stiff length out of his pants and impaling me with one rough stroke. He moved inside of me, a world of raw need in his eyes, need and gratitude. He must have been uncertain of my answer, and still he’d asked.
He moved inside of me with harsh precision, hitting every sensitive spot perfectly and repeatedly, and with merciless force. He had me on the brink before he spoke. “Say it, Bianca.”
“I’m yours, James.”
“Forever,” he added.
“Forever. Oh yes, I’m yours forever, James.”
He came inside of me, arching high. His little movements inside of me as he finished, and a clever thumb on my clit, had me following soon enough.
We got dressed, smiling at each other like fools.
We found Clark and Blake pitching our tents a little ways down the trail, setting up the tents next to one of the small structures that dotted the surface of the top of the mountain.
Clark smiled the biggest smile I’d ever seen on him when he saw how we were smiling. “Congratulations,” he told us with a nod.
“Oh,” I said suddenly, only loud enough for James to hear. “I need to tell Stephan immediately. He’d be crushed if he wasn’t one of the first to know.”
“We’ll let him know as soon as possible,” he responded just as quietly, tugging my hand to lead me over to catch the last glorious minutes of the sunset.
“He’ll be so happy,” I told James quietly, feeling a little sad. I didn’t want to see less of Stephan, but our lives were changing so quickly and in such strange ways that I couldn’t help but be afraid that things wouldn’t stay the same for us. He had been the most important thing in my life for so long…
“Bianca, my love, let me make you a promise,” James said quietly, studying my face carefully. “No matter where we live, no matter what we do, we’ll keep him close to us.”
“You don’t think that he and I are hopelessly co-dependent?” I asked him. I knew the answer. We were, but no part of me was prepared to change that.
He just smiled fondly. “I know that you are, but I think that, just sometimes, like in a marriage, or with just the right people, that can be okay. You two aren’t toxic together. It’s not that kind of co-dependence. You two survive together; you thrive together. I wouldn’t dream of making you change that. I’m trying to join your family, not tear it apart, Love.”
I didn’t think he’d ever said anything that made me realize more profoundly just how much I loved him. Fear of what had happened to my mother hadn’t been the only thing that had scared me about commitment. Losing Stephan in even small amounts had been a fear there, as well. I was so grateful and relieved that I could just put that fear away forever.
We went to a gala for charity the night news broke of our engagement, which was perhaps a mistake. The red carpet was pure chaos.
By sheer coincidence, the men’s health magazine had released their cover and spread of James that same day. It had all turned out beautifully, but they had used several of the pictures with the both of us. The cover picture they’d used had actually been from one of the shots where James had his back to the camera, and I was clearly giggling into his shoulder. My laughing eyes were visible over his shoulder, his face was bent down to nuzzle into my ear, catching the edge of his besotted smile.
Needless to say, the release of the romantic pictures, combined with the first appearance of his bat-shit crazy tattoos, and the announcement of our engagement, had gotten the attention of the media, and we were bombarded the second we stepped out of the car. We couldn’t even hear what the paparazzi were asking us, they were shouting so loudly over each other. Two overzealous male photographers even exchanged blows.
As soon as fists started swinging, our security ushered us straight into the party.
Jackie had picked out a long gown for me that I had to lift high in order to move swiftly as we were ushered inside. It had a fitted champagne silk bodice that hung artfully off my shoulders, but just below my breasts it bled into a long, flowing crimson skirt. She’d paired it with shiny red patent leather shoes and I thought it might be my favorite dress to date. I felt feminine and sexy, and pretty enough to have the most gorgeous man in the world on my arm.
James wore a classic black tux, with a champagne colored shirt and a crisp black bow tie. He had a crimson handkerchief folded into his breast pocket. I wasn’t sure if Jackie or James had set us up to match for the evening. It was anyone’s guess at this point.
Inside was a bit of a crush, so much so that I hoped right away that we wouldn’t be staying long. Especially since the first person we sighted was an irate Scott. We saw him coming from across the antechamber into the gala, and I noted again that he looked uncannily familiar.
“Why does he look so familiar to me?” I asked James, who was studying the other man with sharp intensity.
James laughed. “He’s a very famous tennis player. I just assumed that you knew who he was. He’s highly recognizable. I’ll never stop loving the fact that you’re completely unimpressed with celebrities.”
I shrugged, thinking that it wasn’t so much about not being impressed as it was about not keeping up with current affairs.
“I hope you’re happy, James. Jolene and I have split up because of your porno,” Scott began loudly the second he was within earshot. It was a bad start to the conversation, and I couldn’t miss the fact that the entire room got quiet as they tried to overhear the two famous men having it out.
James stepped a little in front of me in an instinctive protective gesture. I didn’t imagine that I was in any danger from anything but words, though, with our security out in force for the event.
“That doesn’t make me happy, Scott, though I do think you can do better than a woman who’s only interested in your money, and likely isn’t even capable of fidelity. There’s no reason why that video should have ended your relationship. That was taken at least three years ago, before you were even seeing each other.”
Scott chewed on his lip, studying James intently. “You knew about that thing for three years, and never bothered to tell me?”
“No. I didn’t know about it until a few weeks ago. That was taped without my knowledge. I never would have consented to it. No one in my position ever would.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter. I couldn’t stay married to a woman that the world has seen having sex with you. A woman who released a sex tape of herself with another man while married to me.”
“If it’s any help, I don’t believe that she had anything to do with the tape being released. She had nothing to gain from it, and everything to lose. All that video did was burn all of her bridges. Jolene is much too pragmatic to do something so emotional, and with nothing to gain.”
Scott eyed him with suspicion. “Who else could it have been?”
“I don’t know yet, but I am determined to find out. Would you like me to let you know when I have answers? Would that help?”
Scott nodded. “It’s tearing me up, and I know you don’t understand it, but I’m finding it impossible to just let her go. Knowing that she isn’t still so hung up on you that she would do something like that just for spite would help. I think that the idea that she would release it, not caring if it ended us, is what bothers me the most.”
“There’s no accounting for taste, but I can well understand being obsessed with a woman and not being able to let it go, Scott. I wish you the best. Perhaps she’s changed.”
“I know she’s no angel, but I like what she is. If I could only get her to care for me, as I do for her, I think that we could have a good marriage.”
I couldn’t see his face, but I clearly saw James shrug from behind.
“I’m not sure it works that way, but I do know that people are capable of changing, and I hope for your sake that she’ll change for you. I wish you nothing but the best, Scott. I always have.”
Scott hesitated for another moment, looking unsure, before finally nodding. “I think I know that. I guess I have all along. It was just easier to blame you, yanno? Let me know if you find out anything.” He was walking away before he’d even finished talking, his words trailing to us as he moved away.
It seemed to me that Scott could have apologized, being that he’d admitted that he’d been wrong about James, but I didn’t say anything. Friendships could be complicated things, and I wouldn’t dream of stepping in when I didn’t understand theirs.
I did think that Scott and Jolene might just deserve each other, but I kept that thought to myself, as well.
I was happy when the next familiar faces we saw were friendly ones. Both Sophia and Parker embraced me warmly, gushing about the engagement. I flushed in pleasure, and if I was honest, a touch of trepidation. Some part of me screamed that this was all too much too fast every time I was reminded of what I’d agreed to.
“Have you hired a wedding planner? Do you know the venue?” Sophia asked, beaming at me.
I thought she was adorable, with her blonde curls and her enthusiasm, but her question intimidated the hell out of me.
“No,” I said finally. “I haven’t even thought about it.”
Sophia seemed to sense my discomfiture. She touched my shoulder lightly. “There’s no rush. And you can have any size wedding you want. Just be sure to invite us.”