“He’ll be ready to settle down with you in a few years, my dear. Men are basically animals until they hit thirty. It’s a well-known fact,” the housekeeper said to the lovely creature, sounding kindly.
Her eyes weren’t kindly as they sized me up, though.
I was starting to get a very sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I looked at the lovely woman dumbly for a moment, then made myself ask. “Who are you?” My voice was small and pitiful. I really didn’t want to hear the answer, but I had to ask.
The woman smiled, her expression warming in an instant, like magic. Either she was a consummate actress, or she had suddenly decided that she liked me. I was definitely betting on the former.
“I’m Jules Phillips.”
“Are you related to James?” I asked. I was grasping at straws, I knew.
She laughed, and it was a warm, sensual sound.
I felt so sick that I thought I might lose the contents of my stomach right on her perfect red stilettos.
“No. If I were a relative, the things that James and I have done would certainly be illegal. I’m his date tonight. He’s escorting me to a charity ball. It’s for a charity our mothers founded together. Poor thing, did he not tell you about me? He can have a one-tracked mind. I’ve had to be very understanding of his peculiar…whims, over the years.”
She fingered a necklace at her throat, eying up my own bared collar, where I had left the top few buttons undone. Hers was a diamond collar, not so very different from my own.
“Although he’s always been generous enough to make it worthwhile,” she continued, “as I’m sure you know.”
That did it. I barely made it to the sink before I began to vomit.
Jules made a sympathetic noise, and I felt someone smoothing my hair back. The housekeeper made a disgusted noise.
“Too much to drink, dear?” Jules asked, stroking my hair. There was a bite to her question that she probably thought I wouldn’t pick up.
She was a woman to be careful of. I knew it with grim certainty.
I brushed her off.
“Please, give me space,” I said, feeling suffocated.
I straightened, wiping my mouth on my sleeve. I’d never felt so disgusting in my life. Never felt so dirty. He was a liar, I thought. I had fallen in love with a perfect lie. I had shared myself with a beautiful liar. I felt laid bare.
I have to get out of here.
I lurched out of the kitchen. I would rather be sick in the street than spend another second in his home. I made it to the elevator, punching the button.
I felt Jules hovering behind me, a heavy presence at my back.
“Do you live together?” I asked her, without turning.
The other woman didn’t answer, and I assumed the worst.
There was a table by the elevator. I removed my necklace and watch with trembling hands. I laid them on the table carefully, but they still made a loud clanking sound.
I couldn’t get into the elevator fast enough when it finally opened. It was only then that I turned.
On a landing above, I saw that James had just emerged from his bedroom, immaculately dressed for his date. He was frozen in place, taking in the sight of the two of us below. He seemed to register something in my face.
“Bianca, wait,” he said, panic in his voice, his eyes gone wild. He was running down the stairs in a frantic burst as the the elevator doors slid mercifully shut.
I spent the ride down taking deep breaths, trying not to be sick again. It would be too humiliating to leave his elevator stinking with my vomit. And I’d had enough humiliation for the night.
When I reached the street level, I nearly ran from the building. I stood at the edge of the sidewalk for a long moment, disoriented.
“Ms. Karlsson?” A voice called from my right, concern in the voice.
I turned and saw Clark approaching me cautiously, as though afraid I would bolt into the street.
“Let me give you a ride, Miss Karlsson. Please. You look upset.” He spoke quietly, his voice kind and worried. “I’ll call Mr. Cavendish, and he’ll take care of whatever is troubling you.”
At the mention of the name, I did bolt.
I ran across the crowded street without even looking, propelled by panic. I didn’t want to see him. Horns honked, but I didn’t care. A taxi had to careen to a halt mere inches from me.
I glanced inside. It was empty. I got in, dragging my suitcase topped with my flight bag in beside me. I directed the driver to my hotel.
He looked at me like I was crazy, but I reached into my flight bag, fished out my wallet, and thrust a twenty at him. I would normally never take a cab. It was an ungodly expensive way to get around. But at that moment, I would have paid just about anything just to get away. I wanted to get to my room and curl into a ball.
I knew Stephan would still be out. I debated calling him. I knew he would drop whatever he was doing and come back to comfort me. I wanted that. But I dismissed the idea almost immediately. It was a selfish instinct; to pull him away from a fun night and into my misery.
I got gracelessly out of the cab when it stopped. I felt around for my room key, relieved when I found the card still in a pocket. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, not even the the friendly hotel staff.
I nodded at the girl manning the front desk when she called out a greeting. I didn’t recognize her through my blurred haze of misery, even though she called me by name.
I moved quickly to the elevator.
I felt a wave of relief when I finally let myself into my room, bolting the door behind me. I’d had some crazy, paranoid idea that James was chasing me, trying to catch me before I could lock him out and never speak to him again.
I just leaned against the door for long minutes, trying not to lose it.
Of course, I’d known James had a long line of ex-lovers. Of course, I’d known he was a womanizer. Of course, I was a fool. When he’d told me he’d be exclusive, I had just believed him, as though a man like that wouldn’t be a consummate liar.
I left my suitcase at the door, deliberately making myself go through the usual motions.
I pulled the top cover off of the bed, tossing it into a heap in the farthest corner of the room. I knew they never washed those things. I set the alarm by the bed, and then the one on my phone, plugging it in to charge.
I saw that I had eight missed calls. I just turned off the vibrator as well as the ringer, so that it wouldn’t wake me with calls or messages. I’d set it up to only make noise as an alarm.
I unpacked the minimum. Just toiletries and my extra uniform.
I moved to the adjoining door. Even though I had been spending the day away, we had arranged to adjoin, as usual. I opened my side, relieved to see that Stephan had already done the same. I
heard movement in his bathroom, and jumped.
“Ste-Stephan?” I called, really hoping it was him.
He strode out of his bathroom at my call. He was shirtless, wearing only low-slung navy cargo shorts. “Hey, Buttercup. Some knucklehead got barf on my shirt, so I had to come back to change.” He moved towards me as he spoke, drying his hair briskly with a towel.
He got a look at my face and froze. Scant moments later I was being enfolded into his arms. He held my face to his bare chest, stroking my hair.
“Oh, Bee, what is it?”
I had managed not to cry until then, but his sympathy undid me. I heard a broken sob escape from my throat, as though from a distance. I never cried, especially not like this. I wet his chest with my hopeless sobbing.
How had I let this happen? I asked myself, again and again. I had been so certain that I wouldn’t let my heart get involved. But in the end, I’d had no control, even in that.
I felt a horrible crush of guilt as I realized that Stephan cried with me. He had always been like that. He couldn’t watch me suffer and not suffer himself.
“Shh, it will be okay,” he told me, his voice soft and soothing, despite his tears. “We will survive it, Bianca. Whatever it is, we’ll survive it together.”
Suddenly, there was a furious pounding at the door. It vibrated as heavy fists beat against it.
“Bianca, open the door. We need to talk. Don’t lock me out. Open the door. Now.” James’s voice rang clearly into my room, since he was shouting to wake the dead. He pounded relentlessly. I had never heard his voice at any level even approaching a shout. It startled me, to say the least.
We tried to just ignore him in silence as he pounded at the door. It went on for a good five minutes.
Each blow to the door made me tense up, until I was just a quivering mess of nerves.
It brought me back to my childhood as almost nothing else could. The door pounding, my father breaking it down and beating us because we’d had the nerve to lock him out. Almost every violent episode in my childhood had begun with fists reverberating against a door. Just like this.
I was such an emotional wreck at that moment that I reverted back to a habit I thought I had weaned myself off of years ago.
Abruptly, I shot out of Stephan’s arms. I found the safest looking hiding spot, on the far side of the bed. I curled in on myself, arms wrapped tightly around my legs. It was purely a child’s defensive stance, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself.
I heard the door swing open, then Stephan’s voice, colder than I’d heard it since the last time he’d spoken to my father. That hadn’t ended well. I was really hoping this scene wouldn’t end up similarly.
“Don’t do that. She doesn’t want to see you. Just look at her! What have you done?”
His last few sentences were strained. I heard the sounds of a hard struggle, and I knew that James had rushed inside of the room, heedless of the huge blond man filling the entrance. Stephan had blocked him, from the sound of things.
The scuffling sounds paused for long moments. I knew that either James had stopped trying to get past him, or Stephan had James pinned in a good enough hold to restrain the other man.
The sounds of a struggle began again in earnest.
“Just let me see her. I just want to make it better. I’m not here to hurt her, Stephan,” James said, and his voice sounded like it came through gritted teeth.
“You’ve already done that! Look at her! What did you do?” Stephan’s words were a furious roar this time. “You need to leave!”
“I see her,” he said, his raw tone making me cringe. “Bianca, just hear me out. That woman was just a friend.”
I heard the sound of a fist meeting flesh, and a soft grunt of pain out of James. I thought it sounded like a blow to the stomach. That worried me. I knew that Stephan’s gut punches could do some serious damage. Best-case scenario would be just a few days of coughing up blood.
“What woman?” Stephan asked, sounding angrier by the minute.
“Please, just let me go to her. I can’t see her hurting like that. It’s killing me.”
“So leave. You made her like that, and you need to leave. If she wants to talk to you, she has your number.”
“Bianca,” James said again, a break in his voice.
The sound of a body slamming into the wall finally got me to turn my head around, just enough to see. Stephan had an arm at James’s throat, but James was still struggling fiercely to get past him. He wasn’t trying to fight, just move past the roadblock of Stephan.