“James, I won’t allow you to be a tyrant. Johnny did nothing wrong. You can’t say he wants me because of how you interpreted a look.”
“This isn’t about my jealousy, Bianca. Or at least, not only about that. This is about your safety, and if he’s too busy ogling your legs to do his job, he’s of no use to me.”
“And this is based off one look?” I asked him, my jaw setting.
“Yes. I have good instincts.”
“I don’t care. You’re not reassigning him after one look. You told me that I had a say in who was hired or fired, or anything else, and I say that he is not being reassigned based on one look.”
His jaw clenched hard, but I saw immediately that I had won. “Fine. You need more proof. I’ll keep him around long enough to get it. Blake, keep me updated on his behavior when I’m not present.”
“Yes, sir,” she said with no expression. I wondered what she thought about his crazy antics, but I sure wasn’t going to ask.
“Where are we going?” I asked him, trying to move on from the silly altercation, trying not to stay upset when he had at least conceded to my wishes.
“It’s called Red. It’s one of my restaurants. It’s just next door. The guys are meeting us there for dinner.”
I smiled when he called them ‘the guys’, because it sounded so familiar and so comfortable, as though Stephan and Javier had been his ‘guys’ forever.
The second we emerged from the elevator and into the massive hotel lobby, we were flanked by my security and Clark.
I shot James an arch look. “Don’t you think this is all a bit excessive?” I asked him.
He squeezed my hip in his hand hard enough to bruise. “Until your father has been found and imprisoned, nothing is too excessive. I can afford it, so indulge me.”
“Hmm,” I said, not sure what to do about his overzealous measures. If I was honest, a part of me liked the protection, liked knowing that my father couldn’t get to me even if he tried his best, but the rest of me knew that four people to guard one insignificant woman was completely ludicrous.
Red was as outrageously luxe as I had pictured it would be. James didn’t seem to own a property that wasn’t. Every inch of the place was, of course, red. Every shade of red was represented in splashy print on the walls, deep red hardwood floors, and red crystal chandeliers over every table and lounge area.
The first room of the establishment was a massive bar area with high ceilings and red marble topping every surface. The line that wrapped around the block to get into the place meant that it was obviously in high demand, but you wouldn’t know it by the spacious bar. The patrons were well-dressed and well-behaved. The trendy mixing with the affluent in a tasteful atmosphere.
An earnest, black-haired hostess, that probably spent her days modeling, led us briskly through the bars and to one of the extravagant dining rooms. There were three that I could see.
Huge mixed floral arrangements topped every table. All of the flowers were red, of course.
“It’s very red,” I told James.
He just smiled.
The hostess led us to a table in the very center of the large room. No private dining room for us. James apparently wanted to be seen tonight.
Stephan and Javier were already waiting for us at the table. Stephan greeted me with a long hug, Javier a shorter one.
We sat at the beautifully arranged table, and I watched, impressed, as the security team began to position themselves around the room without a word.
“They’re so choreographed,” I said.
Stephan and Javier were both drinking red wine, and James and I had water.
“Bring us the evening’s special,” James told the waitress, who looked star-struck at the sight of him. “If that sounds okay to everyone?”
We all nodded. We were flight attendants, which left us in a strange middle ground where we were all strangely cultured, very well-traveled, but none of our travels had taken us to anywhere quite so intimidatingly expensive. I thought it made us all a little nervous.
We chatted comfortably as we waited for food. The guys all got along remarkably well, which was a relief to me. Aside from having me in common, Stephan and James always had so much to talk about. From sports, to cars, to friendly political debates that only gave me a slight headache, they talked like they were old friends. It warmed my heart.
Dinner came in waves of delicious courses that were small portions of richly seasoned foods, and I only knew what it was all even called because the waitress presented each dish with a flourish and an explanation. The main course, pan-roasted halibut with spring asparagus risotto, practically melted in my mouth.
“Very good,” James told her when she’d served another course.
She practically glowed as she floated away, obviously affected by his praise.
“You shouldn’t throw out that charm so carelessly. You’ll make the whole world fall in love with you,” I told him, smiling slightly.
He grabbed my hand, kissing my fingers. He studied me. “You think so, Love?”
I looked away, blushing, at a loss for words.
Dessert was even more delectable than dinner, with roasted banana gateau and frozen rum custard. The servings were tiny, but I was still stuffed by the time we finished the drawn-out meal.
We lingered for a long time even after dinner, enjoying the beautiful setting and the wonderful company. The guys were headed to a Broadway play after dinner. The thought made me grin. Broadway was not Stephan’s thing, so it was sweet that he would go for Javier.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” James said with a grin. “A men’s health magazine asked me to do a last minute photo shoot and a short interview piece.”
I just blinked at him for a moment. “A photo shoot?” I asked him. I shouldn’t have been surprised. He was a supermodel among men. What magazine wouldn’t want him on their cover?
“I saw your last spread. It was very good,” Javier said.
James shrugged. “I do them every once in a while. They wanted me to do this shoot for a fall issue, but I insisted on doing the next one that comes out. I have a good relationship with the magazine.”
I had a thought. “Are you just doing it to show off your tattoos?” I asked.
He grinned a wicked grin and the guys started laughing. It was so crazy, over-the-top romantic, and so James, wanting to show the evidence of his devotion to the world. I blushed scarlet.
“Will you come with me to the shoot? It’s Wednesday afternoon, right after I finish at the office.”
I gave my little shrug. “If you want me to be there, I’ll go.”
His eyes practically glowed at me from his grinning face. “Love, I want you everywhere I go. I’d put you in my pocket, if I could.”
All of us laughed, but I don’t think any of us thought for a second that he didn’t mean it.
“Also, Stephan and Javier have some news for you,” James said, looking at the other men.
I studied them, surprised to see that they looked nervous. I gave Stephan the look that he knew meant, ‘spit it out.’
He chewed on his lip as he thought of what to say. “I had a meeting with James today, while you were sleeping,” he began. That was news to me. I’d had no idea he’d been to the office. “He’s magnanimously agreed to put up the starter capital for Javier and me to open up a bar in Vegas.”
I didn’t react, just studied all of the men, surprised at what had transpired without my knowledge.
James couldn’t seem to help himself, ingratiating himself into every aspect of my life, but how could I be mad, when he did such wonderful things for my best friend? The answer was simple. I couldn’t.
I looked at James. “Thank you,” I told him sincerely.
He shrugged. “It’s an investment. Stephan presented me with an idea that I think will be successful. It’s as simple as that. No need to thank me.”
I gave him a wry look, but that was all.
We finished up, walking out with the guys. I hugged Stephan goodbye and told them to have a good night. James had gotten them their own car and driver for the evening, and they were in heaven, loving the VIP treatment.
Our car was awkwardly silent on the short drive back to the apartment, since Blake and Johnny had joined us in the back. James linked his fingers with mine, but that was all.
“Are you going to explain to me about what happened this morning? Jolene is married? And you were friends with her husband?” I asked, my voice pitched low. I was trying to be reasonable, trying to get through the day without any more drama, but I needed some things made clear for me.
He sighed. It was a resigned sigh, and his face was troubled as he looked at me. “Yes, of course I’ll explain. Thank you for asking, and not just reacting. Let’s go up to bed. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know there.”
I studied him rather suspiciously. “You can’t just tie me up whenever we need to have a talk that you think I won’t like.”
He gave me a smug look. It was infuriating. “As a matter of fact, I can. But that’s not my plan right now. I would just prefer to talk in the bedroom.”
We were in the closet, undressing for bed, before he spoke again. “Scott met Jolene when she was my sub. He was instantly taken with her. When I ended our arrangement, Scott asked me if I minded if he asked her out. I didn’t mind, but I told him that it may not be the best idea, for his sake. That was all I said and all I knew. Unbeknownst to me, they married less than two weeks later.”
He managed to undress first, and moved close to watch me finish.
“A few months after that Jolene called me, asked me to meet her for dinner. I didn’t see a problem with that—didn’t even know whether or not she and Scott had gone out, and I was between subs, so I simply saw it as a chance to blow off steam.”
I made my face go carefully blank as I looked at him. The blowing off steam comment made me feel…delicate, for reasons that I didn’t want to investigate.
“We were…together that night, and again a few days later. She expressed interest in resuming our previous arrangement. I tried to tell her gently that I wasn’t interested, and that I thought that she should move on. That’s when she told me that she’d married Scott. She threw it out as proof that she’d already moved on, thinking it would actually encourage me to reconsider.”
“Needless to say, it didn’t do that. I told her I wouldn’t see her, wouldn’t touch her, if she was married. I never wanted to be an adulterer; the idea is abhorrent to me, especially when I was cuckolding a friend of mine.”
I pulled a sheer slip over my head.
“I stopped seeing her, stopped taking her calls, for at least a year,” he continued. “I was between subs again when she finally managed to pin me down. She was divorced by then, which I knew, though I didn’t know exactly what had happened at the time. Later I would learn that she had filed because I’d refused to see her when she was married. I never should have touched her after we ended our original arrangement. I see that clearly now. My friendship with Scott is irreparable now, unfortunately I figured it out too late. He is completely enamored with her, so much so that he is incapable of seeing reason. I used to be baffled by it—by him losing his head so completely over a woman.” He gave me a self-deprecating smile. “I’m not baffled by it anymore. Now the only thing that baffles me is his taste in women.”