I had to stifle the urge to tell him that they seemed to share a taste in women. I told myself firmly that it wouldn’t be a constructive thing to say. There was a lot about his past that I would need to overlook if we were going to have any hope of staying together. And as long as it really was the past, I thought I could learn to deal, though his explanation troubled me on a number of levels.
I was silent for a long time while I examined my own thoughts, and finished getting ready for bed.
James didn’t appreciate me keeping my own council. “Tell me what you’re thinking,” he burst out finally. “Are you upset?”
I went into the bathroom, washing my face and brushing my teeth. James dogged my footsteps the entire time, trouble in those brilliant eyes that never left my face.
I was climbing onto the bed when I finally answered. “I guess I’m just a little surprised with you, that after all of that, you were still seeing her just a day before I met you. I’m not upset, just—is it so hard for you to stay away from her?”
I was glancing at him only as I finished speaking, but I clearly saw him flinch.
“It’s not like you’re thinking. I don’t know if you’ll think it’s better or worse, but I didn’t continue to see her for all that time because I couldn’t stay away. It’s sort of the opposite. We had preferences in common, but I never even liked her. I’ve known from the start that she was mercenary. Perhaps not the extent of it until she went after Scott, but I realized at least enough to know, that I could never care for her. I saw her because I needed an outlet for the things I do, and at my worst, I thought that we deserved each other. I didn’t even contact her that often, only when I was between subs and in a particularly dark mood. Most of the time she wasn’t even allowed to talk—“
I held up a hand, having heard more than enough. “I don’t think I can bear to hear those kinds of details. One last question, and then I’ll drop it. Why does Scott still call her his wife?”
He grimaced. “Scott never got over her. He never saw her as she is. He just sees the package, and the fact that she’s insatiabl—“
I held up that hand again. “Please.”
He brushed my hair from my face. I saw his tan throat work as he swallowed hard, leaning over me. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be insensitive. It’s hard to explain these things without touching on sensitive things.”
“As long as I don’t have to hear any more about her sensitive things,” I said wryly.
He grinned. “You know I’m only interested in your sensitive things.”
I wrinkled my nose at him.
“Too soon to joke about it?” he asked.
He sighed. “Anyway, word is that they remarried a few weeks ago. Poor bastard. She’s going to wring him out to dry. Nothing I can do about it, though I did try to warn him. And I didn’t lose control, Bianca, not like you’re thinking. He took a swing at me, he missed, and I didn’t. They were escorted off the premises. They won’t be allowed back on. Anything else you need to know?”
I shook my head. A part of me could have questioned him all night. Everything about him interested me, from his past to his present, and the masochist in me wanted to know every little detail. I knew what I needed to know, though, and that would have to be enough.
He did his kinky doctor routine, examining every inch of me, and then massaging my body slowly and carefully. I was well-sated from the afternoon’s vigorous activities, but I still wanted him again by the time he finished.
He studied my back for a very long time, but said nothing, just softly kissing the marks he had left there with the black and blue roses.
I felt like I’d slept the day away, but somehow I felt myself drifting off even as he tended to me. He didn’t try to stop me.
I was in that house again. I sat up as though pulled by a string. My father was shouting somewhere in the house, an indecipherable string of Swedish that my ears picked up but that my brain couldn’t translate. Knowing it was a bad idea, I got out of bed.
I glanced down at my cold bare feet, and they were bigger, more grown up, not at all like I remembered. Something was wrong, even more wrong than normal. Still, I padded silently down that long hallway.
The kitchen was where it was supposed to be, but everything else was wrong. A thick red pool was soaking the light blue carpet of the hallway, visible before I’d even made it to the kitchen. I glanced down at my hands. They were already covered in blood. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Still, I approached that kitchen, unable to stay away.
My mother’s body lay on the floor, and it was all I could see for long moments as I stood in the doorway. Her head was gone—just so many pieces on the floor, and in my hair, and on my nightgown. I recognized her only by the hunks of long golden hair scattered around her body. I knelt at her side, clutching one of her delicate hands. It was the only part of her still unmarred by gore.
The moment I touched her, more of the room came into focus.
Hers wasn’t the only body on the ground. Another woman lay scant feet away, and I saw by her garish red hair that it was Sharon. I stared at her, confused and horrified, as my mind refused to see the other horror in the room. Only my father’s yelling made me finally look over, and only because his words changed, a heavily accented sentence in English getting my attention.
“Look, sotnos, look.”
I looked. I stood, a scream building in my throat. My father stood facing me, but it wasn’t him I looked at—wasn’t him I saw. A large figure stood in front of him, his back facing me. Perfect golden brown hair just brushed the white collar of a crisp dress shirt, a strong back showing tensed muscles that were painfully familiar.
“James,” I said brokenly, my voice barely more than a whisper.
He didn’t turn, didn’t so much as twitch at my presence.
I stepped closer, unable to look away. “James,” I said again, drawing even with the horrifying tableau in front of me. My heart stopped in my chest as all of the pieces of the picture snapped into place with a terrifying clarity.
My father stood almost propped against that still as death James, a gun already shoved inside his mouth, pushed far into his throat.
James’s eyes were open, but they were glassy, as though the trigger had already been pulled. His arms were limp at his sides. I grabbed an arm, but the feel of his slack muscles made me recoil.
“Watch, sotnos, watch,” my father said coldly. I began to sob as my father pulled the trigger, unable to stop him—unable to look away.
James crumpled in a heap to the floor, the back of his head disappearing in a gory splash of red.
I sat up with a scream, my eyes wide in the dark.
I began to move, needing action, though I couldn’t see where I was, or where I was going. I was sobbing brokenly when strong, hard arms wrapped around me from behind, lifting and turning me gently into a heart-achingly familiar chest. I gasped and clutched at James even as he lifted me.
I shut my eyes as James carried me into the bathroom, turning on the blindingly bright lights. He didn’t let me go as he got into the bath, still clutching me tightly with one strong arm. I gripped him with both arms, clinging as tightly as I could. I wouldn’t even let go when he tried to strip off my nightgown.
“No,” I protested, gripping him.
“Okay, shh, that’s fine, Love, I won’t let go.”
He sank to the bottom of the tub, keeping me tightly against him, rubbing a soothing hand against my back and keeping me close, murmuring soothing words as I slowly calmed. Eventually he pulled back far enough to lift off my nightgown and then worked slowly out of his boxers. He pulled me flush against him when he’d finished, until we were flesh to flesh.
He washed me, scrubbing me gently but thoroughly, as though he knew about my bloody dream, and knew exactly what I needed.
He didn’t ask me about the nightmare—didn’t ask me for anything at all, but instead gave comfort, anticipating my needs better than I could have communicated, if I’d been able to communicate.
Eventually I spoke, spilling every detail of the dream in a quiet, agonized whisper.
He stroked my back as I spoke, staying silent while I told him about the nightmare. He only spoke when I’d finished and fell silent. “It was just a dream, Bianca. I’m here, and I’m fine. Your father wouldn’t be able to get to me if he tried. And we will take every precaution to make sure he can never get to you. We’ll be fine, Love. Everything is going to be okay.”
I felt better after I got it all out and of course after James reassured me with so much conviction in his voice. We dried off and fell asleep. I clutched him even as I drifted off.
I awoke when I felt James leaving the bed. I sat up when the bathroom door closed, the shower turning on a moment later. I had nearly drifted off again when he re-emerged. I made myself get up.
I watched him get dressed from the closet entrance, barely managing not to drool even in my sleep-dazed state.
James shot me a warm look. “Go back to bed, Love. I have to go into work, but that doesn’t mean you have to wake up at this ungodly hour,” he said, shrugging into a crisp white dress shirt.
I gave a little shrug. I’d slept enough.
He finished dressing swiftly, moving to me with a purpose. He kissed me, a slow, hot kiss, but pulled back without doing more. His golden hair trailed into his face as he bent down to me. It wasn’t even dry yet, but it still looked model perfect. I ran a strand between my fingers.
James pulled back reluctantly. “All of the paintings that you’re working on have been moved into your studio here. And I believe that Lana is going to try to rope you into lunch today, though if she doesn’t, I’d love to get the privilege.”
My brows furrowed. I’d gotten a brief tour of my brand new window-lined studio, but I hadn’t seen my current projects there.
“All of them?” I asked, thinking of the nude I’d started painting of him, the one I’d buried in a chest in the guest bedroom of my small home.
He grinned wickedly. “All of them. I need to go. If you aren’t going back to bed, then walk me out.” As he spoke, he hooked a finger into the collar at my neck.
He kissed me at the elevator. “We’ll dine in tonight, then I’m taking you to the fourth floor,” he told me as the door closed.
I missed him the second he was gone. I had it so bad.
I couldn’t go back to that empty bed, so I painted.
I had to smile when I saw that he’d been quite literal about moving all of the paintings I was working on into my studio. Even the nude of him had somehow been found in my house and shipped here. The man had no boundaries whatsoever.
I worked on the portrait of a fourteen-year-old James that I had begun working on the week before. I worked for hours, becoming utterly absorbed in that image of him, that picture of an outrageously beautiful child with the sorrow of loss and the weight of the world on his shoulders.
I had made good progress on the painting, but still wore just the barest slip, when I heard a brisk knock on the door of my studio.