My gaze flew back to my father’s face as a laugh left his throat. It was a cackle of a laugh, dry and angry. I began to back away, shaking my head back and forth in denial.
“Wrong answer, cunt,” he said.
He waved the the pistol in front of her. “You can’t take your eyes off of this. Do you want it? Would you like me to give this to you? Take it, if you want it. You think I can’t touch you with a gun in your hand?”
My mother watched him, her eyes almost blank with terror. She must know, as I did, from the mocking tone of his voice, that he was testing her. She would pay dearly if she took the gun from him, even if he had told her to.
He laughed. “I insist. Take the gun.”
Unexpectedly, and horrifyingly, she did. She pointed it at him with hands that shook.
“Get out,” she said, her voice tremulous and awful with her terror. “You can’t do these things, especially in front of our daughter. Get out, and don’t come back.” She was sobbing, but she managed to pull the hammer back.
He laughed again. With no fear and no effort, he grabbed her hand. His hand covered one of hers, ripping the other one away. He turned the gun, slowly and inexorably pointing it away from himself and pushing it into her mouth.
I had backed myself against the wall as I watched their exchange, but when I saw his clear intent, I suddenly rushed forward, sobbing.
“Mama,” I cried.
I stopped as though I’d run into a wall when my father pulled the trigger, covering us, and the entire room, in bright red blood and gore.
My horrified eyes met my father’s. His showed no expression at all.
I screamed, sitting up.
I was out of the bed and in the bathroom as fast as my body could move. I began to scrub at my face, over and over again. My breath was shaky and gasping.
The light turned on behind me.
“Are you alright?” James asked, his voice soft with concern.
I couldn’t look at him. I especially couldn’t look at my reflection. I hadn’t had that dream in a very long time. I usually couldn’t look at myself for days after I had that dream.
“Yes. Just an old nightmare. I need to be alone, please.”
I turned on the shower, knowing that the sink could never get me clean enough to wash off all of that blood and gore.
I stepped into the shower without checking to see if he’d listened. I got under the still cold spray, shivering and hugging myself. I sank to the bottom of the tub as the water turned warmer.
I didn’t realize that I’d left my thin shift on until James was pealing it off of me.
“Don’t,” I warned. He ignored me, sitting behind me to curl himself around me. “I just need to be alone,” I told him.
“Not anymore, Love,” James murmured into my ear.
I didn’t cry. I didn’t break down. I just washed myself, again and again, until James took over the chore, turning the scrubbing into soft strokes.
“You ready to dry off and go back to bed?” he asked, after several minutes under the spray.
He dried me and carried me back to bed, cradled like a child. He wrapped me in the covers, then wrapped himself around me. He stroked my hair comfortingly until I drifted back to sleep.
We passed the next day together pleasantly, James staying almost glued to me the entire day.
I woke up first, watching him sleep for awhile, marveling at his beauty. The sun streamed into my bedroom, touching pieces of his skin. It looked flawless even in the bright sun, his tan set off darkly against my pale blue, washed-out sheets.
I made myself get out of bed. I was infatuated, and it wasn’t a condition that I planned to cultivate.
I threw on a thin cotton sundress, not bothering with any kind of underwear. I slipped quietly from the room.
I mentally beat myself up as I brewed a pot of coffee. I was feeling things that I was too smart to be feeling about a man like that.
At the end of this, I must at least keep my pride, I thought. And my heart, I added to myself, cringing, because I knew I already felt too much for the mercurial man.
James joined me not long after I’d made myself a cup of coffee.
I leaned against the counter, sipping it.
He made himself a cup and perched a hip on the counter at my side. He was wearing only black boxer-briefs, and they were tight enough to show me his clear, heavy arousal.
I looked deliberately away from the sinful display, my eyes fixed sightlessly on the cupboards.
He took a sip of my coffee and winced. I laughed. I made my coffee strong. It wasn’t for everyone. He took another drink, trying to adjust to the harsh flavor.
“You walking around like that should be illegal,” I told him, without looking at his body again.
He smirked, eyeing up my tiny sundress, and my conspicuous lack of underwear. I was way too busty to get away with going braless and not have it be obvious.
“I could say the same about you.”
“You’re a tease,” I told him.
“I am not that. A few days won’t kill us. Besides, I need to prove to myself that I can exercise some self-control where you’re concerned.”
This was news to me. “Why?”
“Your…pain threshold is a concern to me. I need to know that I can put your welfare before my own impulses. I would hate myself if I went too far with you. I know I’m a bastard, but even I’m not that much of a bastard.
My brows shot up. He had been so much more caring than I had expected him to be. I was surprised he thought of himself that way.
“Why do you think you’re a bastard?”
His expression darkened. “I know it’s all consensual, but the fact is, I like to hurt women during sex. There’s a reason you fear me. My strongest impulse is to control and to dominate, but make no mistake, I’m a sadist. It doesn’t exactly make me a good guy.”
I was sad for him, and the weak part of me wanted to ease his torment.
But how could I? I had my own demons that I didn’t know how to control. My need to comfort him won out. The need to comfort us both.
“Even masochists need lovers,” I told him, my tone gentle. “What would a girl like me do without someone like you? Perhaps everyone is good for someone.”
He leaned down and kissed me. “Thank you. What a beautiful thing for you to say to me. Just when I think you don’t care for me, you give me some hope.”
I looked away, embarrassed.
We picked out samples from my paintings for hours in the morning. James seemed endlessly patient and didn’t pressure me to choose.
I held up the two small paintings I was debating about.
“Which one, do you think?” I asked.
He pointed at the desert flower. “This one for the sample.”
His finger moved to the other picture. It was of the cat that seemed to live in my backyard part-time. It was fat, and loved to sleep on top of my tall concrete barrier on it’s back. The picture captured just such a pose. “But this is good,” he added. “It should definitely be in the gallery showing. It seems like a good candidate for print sales, as well. People are really into cat pictures right now. Especially quirky cats.”
I smiled. “I love that cat. I don’t know who it belongs to, but it can’t be a stray if it’s that fat. Though it does try to come into my house half the time when I open my back door.”
“I saw the other picture of it in your kitchen. Fat cats are cute,” James said, meeting my smile.
“You’re determined to make me like you,” I told him playfully.
He looked a little hurt by the comment. “You don’t like me?” he asked.
I thought back to my words. I hadn’t realized how rude they could be taken when they were coming out of my mouth. “I didn’t mean it like that. I was just teasing you. You’ve just been so well-behaved, so charming. It’s like you’re trying to make me become attached to you.”
He studied me intently, like I was a particularly fascinating novelty to him. “Well, yes, I want that. I don’t know how to show you any more clearly that that is exactly what I want.”
I just raised my eyebrows at him, staring for a long minute.
“It seems rather pointless and selfish to me that you would want to make someone become attached to you, while you remain detached yourself,” I told him quietly, raising my chin almost defiantly.
He never looked away from me as he spoke. His eyes were snapping with intensity as he caught my hand, pulling it to his chest. “You silly girl, I’m caught fast. I’ve been attached from the start. How can you doubt it?”
I pulled my hand away, skeptical and uncomfortable.
Is this some game to him? I wondered.
“I can doubt just about anything, Mr. Cavendish. I am, by nature, a skeptic.”
He raised a hand to my cheek, stroking it with a featherlight touch. “How can someone so young and innocent also be so cynical?” he asked me.
“Life hasn’t taught me to be anything else. Forgive me, but I wouldn’t even begin to know how not to doubt someone I barely know.”
He pushed me down onto my guest bed, it’s surface recently cleared. He loomed over me.
“Then I will make sure that you know me, Bianca,” he said, and kissed me with bruising intensity.
I finally settled on the samples I wanted, and James had sent them off before I even knew that was his intention.
He gave me a wry smile. “It’s not in my nature to procrastinate. I tend to get things done right when I think of them.”
I shook off his whirlwind behavior, chalking it up to more rich people quirks.
He started making phone calls and working on his computer again, so I went out back to work on the painting I’d begun of him. He came out and sat in one of my cheap plastic chairs, still on his phone. He covered it briefly.
“Will I disturb you if I sit with you?” he asked.
I shook my head, still working. It helped, actually. Though he wasn’t posing, it still helped to look at him frequently as I painted him.
I worked for several hours and he stayed where he was, working and watching me. I distantly noted that he ordered food, but I just kept working. I had no idea what time it was and didn’t really care.
“Food is here,” James said after awhile, getting up. He left and came back, carrying to-go bowls from my favorite tex-mex restaurant.
I smiled at him. “I love that place.”
“Sit and eat,” he told me, pointing at the chair across from him.
I did, taking one of the bowls from him. It wasn’t what I normally ordered, but it was good, maybe even better than my usual.
I ate quickly, trying to be polite about it. My mind was still on the painting. I had eaten nearly the entire bowl before I realized it.
I went back to painting, not speaking. James went back to working and watching.
I was nearly finished with the painting when I quit. I always liked to finish a project with a fresh perspective.
I would step away from it for a few days, then come back and see it with new eyes.
James was on the phone and I started to clean up my supplies when I thought better of it. I started to prepare new watercolor paper.