She gave me a mock glare. “I knew you wouldn’t forget about that.” She sighed heavily. “I’ve been in love with him since I was ten. Unfortunately, he was twenty when I was ten. That was fine. I was content to wait. I bided my time, enjoying his company, taking up as much of his time as I could manage. He taught me to surf. His family as good as adopted me when my parents left Maui. He made me laugh. God, did he make me laugh. My happiest memories are of playing jokes on him. I would torment him, but he never got mad, never lost his patience. He was so wonderful to me, and I thought he was the most beautiful creature on the planet.”
She looked down at her hands, and I knew that the story was about to take a turn for the worse. “When I was eighteen I seduced him. I was completely ruthless about it. I told him that if he didn’t take my virginity, and make it good for me, that I’d give it up to some drunk frat boy, and probably hate sex for life after that, and probably get an STD.”
I stifled a laugh, because it was such an outrageous thing to do.
She didn’t take offense. “Oh, yeah, I guilted him into it. There’s no other way to look at it. After that, I had to leave. I thought that sex would change everything for us, and it did. It ruined everything. I was in deeper than ever after that, and he saw me as a kid sister. He was still in love with his ex-girlfriend. He got back together with her the day after we were together. I overheard what he told her about me. He said I was a family friend with an inconvenient infatuation. He wasn’t wrong, but it still broke my heart. I left that day. God, I miss that rock.”
I studied her. I had a hard time believing that he’d only had sex with her out of pity. “He must have wanted you if he took you up on your offer. I’m no expert, but I don’t think men have sex with women they don’t want. And men always want women who look like you.”
She shrugged. “None of it matters now. It’s all in the past. I like being alone. Romantic entanglements just don’t interest me. I’m content with work. I keep busy.”
“You’re still in love with him,” I said, certain I was right.
She shrugged. “I can’t help it, other than to try to think about it as seldom as possible. Last I heard, he was engaged to his high school sweetheart.”
“You need to go back to Maui. You still think of it as home. Even if it’s just to get closure, you should go visit. How many years has it been since you left?”
“Eight.” She shrugged again. “Maybe I will, sometime. I do miss it. Your turn. Tell me about you and James.”
I glanced around, making sure we had privacy. I leaned towards her. “He’s into BDSM. Well, we are into it, actually.”
She smiled wryly, not looking in the least surprised.
“Not firsthand, but Jules tried to tell me about that once, when she thought he and I were dating. She was trying to scare me off. Have you noticed that all of the really pretty men always have a thing? Women are just too easy for them, I think, so they always seem to develop…quirks, yanno?”
I laughed, because I loved her take on it, and the fact that it didn’t faze her a bit. “No, I don’t know. I only know James, and he and I share…quirks.”
She shrugged. “I have a thing for giant Hawaiian men who look like ripped pro-wrestlers, and are covered in tattoos.”
“Men? So this is a pattern for you?” I asked, genuinely curious.
She wrinkled her nose, those violet eyes sparkling. “Just Akira.”
She looked at something behind my shoulder. “Oh, lord, here comes Jackie.” She caught my expression. “You don’t like her?”
I gave my little shrug. “Not so far.”
Lana waved an elegant hand towards the woman. “It’s a fact that she’s more than half-crazy. Did you know that she actually thinks that shopping is a legitimate job? But she’s very funny when you get to know her. She’s just rough around the edges, that’s all.”
I would have taken nice over funny any day, but I held my tongue.
Jackie approached us with her no-nonsense little walk, wearing smartly tailored, cuffed shorts, and an almost severely modest collared shirt. The whole ensemble was pea-green, a color that worked with her complexion, but that I didn’t think would work for many. Her cute legs, and her nude stilettos with red soles, kept the outfit from being too conservative.
Jackie was looking at my lap as though I had something disgusting growing there.
I looked down at the cream bag she had picked out the day before.
“Twice in a row with the same bag, Bianca? You have a closet full of bags! Are you trying to embarrass me?”
Lana tutted at her rather affectionately. “Looks like you’re doing that all on your own, Jackie. Chill out. It’s a bag. A lovely bag. Go away if you aren’t here to be nice.”
Jackie looked surprised but not at all offended. “You aren’t going to invite me to join you for lunch?”
Lana shook her head. “Nope. What are you up to?”
Jackie shrugged. “I come here all the time. It’s a good place to be seen. I wanted to discuss some things with Bianca.”
“Nope. Are you stalking her?”
“Noooo. I just need a minute.”
“Then make an appointment,” Lana said with a sweet smile.
“What do you want, Jackie?” I asked, trying to make my tone bland rather than hostile.
She reached into her own monstrosity of a bag. It was pea-green leather with a big red stripe down the side. She pulled out a small piece of paper, brandishing it like a weapon. “I have a list of functions that you need to attend. Mostly luncheons.”
I sighed, waving at one of the empty chairs at our table. “Sit down and tell me what you’re talking about, Jackie.”
She sat and started in, as if she had rehearsed the whole spiel. “As the significant other of a powerful and influential man in this town, you have some new obligations. You’ll be expected to attend lunches and brunches, and tea parties, nearly every day of the week.”
I felt my face stiffening the more she spoke.
”Being with James is a full-time job. I’m willing to show you the ropes, since you can’t possibly understand what all of this entails—“
“I have a job,” I interrupted her. “I’m not looking for another one. I have no wish to go to functions with a bunch of strange women every day.”
She let out a very put-upon sigh. “I was afraid you’d say that. You can’t possibly comprehend the kind of responsibilities that James and I have had to own since our childhoods—“
I laughed in her face, my extremely rare temper rearing its very ugly head, the words she’d chosen setting me off. “Responsibility? You are going to lecture me about responsibility? I have had to care for myself since I was a child. You probably still live off your parents’ wealth,” I guessed. I saw by her expression that I was right. “Don’t you dare speak a word to me about responsibility!”
I instantly regretted losing my cool, but I didn’t take anything I’d said back. It was nothing but the truth, if an indelicate one.
“I didn’t mean to upset you again,” she said carefully. “I know you don’t like me. And I know you think I don’t like you, but that’s a nonissue to me. I’m trying to help you.”
I raised a hand. “Don’t. Don’t try to help me. Don’t try to tell me what I need to do with my time.”
She sighed that put-upon sigh of hers. “Fine, I’ll go, but let me know if you reconsider.”
I looked at Lana after she’d left. “What’s with her?”
Lana shook her head. “She’s an odd one, so I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing it’s half self-promotion, since she could claim to dress you for all of the functions she’s plotting. The other half would be that she actually thinks she’s trying to help you, in her own misguided way. My advice would be to challenge her. Her personality demands it. Give her some arbitrary conditions to being your dresser.” She snapped her fingers as though an idea had struck her. “I know. Tell her you only want to wear clothes from up-and-coming fashion designers. Insist that you won’t wear anything else. That will drive her crazy, but she’s perverse enough that she’ll enjoy it.”
I wrinkled my nose at her. “I’ll try it, though I don’t understand it.”
She just shrugged. “Jackie takes time to understand, but I guarantee she’ll grow on you.”
We chatted and ate and chatted some more. We had been talking and laughing for hours when Lana looked at her phone and groaned.
“I need to get to a meeting. Thanks for doing this,” Lana said, beginning to gather up her things.
“Thanks for inviting me. It’s nice to discover that James has some female friends that aren’t complete psychopaths.”
She threw back her head and laughed. She was a sight, with her blonde mermaid hair and her twinkling eyes.
We were just standing up from the table when I spotted James striding through the door of the now crowded café. People stopped in their tracks to watch him, myself included.
He only had eyes for me as he approached.
He wrapped an arm around my waist, gripping tightly, before he turned a dazzling smile on Lana. “We’ll walk you out,” he said.
We walked her out, flanked by our security, of which Lana had said not one word, and said our goodbyes. I was surprised when James led me to the car, and then followed me into the large SUV. It was only two p.m. I hadn’t imagined he’d get off work so early.
“Are you done for the day?” I asked him as he crowded me into the middle seat.
He buckled me in like the control freak he is, before answering. “I am.” He grinned. It was the most charming, incorrigible smile, the smile of a kid ditching school and getting away with it because no one could tell him no.
I traced his lips with one finger. “That’s good news,” I said softly.
“I pawned some meetings off on my VP. Meetings that were above his pay grade, so I may need to give him a raise. I want to watch you paint. I needed to see those dreams in your eyes firsthand.”
He fingered one of my earrings, his eyes as tender as I’d ever seen them. “Thank you for that,” he whispered, a catch in his voice.
We went straight to the apartment. We found Stephan and Javier in one of the larger entertainment areas, playing video games and eating sandwiches. They were still wearing pajamas.
I laughed when I saw them.
Stephan grinned back at me.
Javier didn’t even look up. He was too busy trying to hunt down and kill Stephan’s character in the game. He wasn’t successful.
Stephan shot Javier’s character in the head within seconds, barely even glancing at the screen. He was the worst to play against. He never lost.
Javier cursed. “I almost had you!”
“Headshot,” Stephan pointed out.
James tugged at my hand, drawing my gaze to him. He grinned at me, a twinkle in his eye. “Well, we have to play a match or two. I’m playing hooky from work. Gaming is practically a requirement.”