Five minutes. That’s all the time she had to change from her work clothes into her workout gear before James came knocking. Ella locked up the coffee shop after putting away the last of the chairs and sprinted up to her apartment. A shower was out of the question. She stripped out of the delicious smelling clothes and pulled on her tights. If it weren’t for him, there was no way she’d be out today, let alone jogging.
But the single-minded bull-headedness that was the trademark of James O’Connor, was hard to fight. Besides, technically, it was all for her benefit. She’d just zipped up her jacket when the signature rap sounded on her door.
“Ready?” James asked when she opened the door for him.
“No,” Ella grumbled, stepping out into the lobby.
“Let’s go,” he said, unfazed by her reluctance.
Ella steeled herself for the blast of cold that was about to hit them and followed James down the stairwell. Down in the lobby, she stalled as the frozen January landscape of New York City came into view. Goosebumps erupted along her arms just looking at the snow piled on top of the awnings of the little shops and porches along the street.
When she baulked at leaving the comfortable, toasty warmth of the lobby, James gave a not-so-gentle nudge. With one last breath of comfort, then held her breath and stepped out onto the sidewalk.
In sync, the two of them turned towards Central Park. James set a brisk pace for their jog. Actually, it was unfair to call it a jog, it was more of a full-on run. Well, for Ella certainly. Perhaps, with his long legs, James could call it a jog. By the time they got to the track in the park, her bones had defrosted somewhat. Only somewhat, though.
She was sure to break a frozen bone if she tripped and fell. He’d catch her. He wouldn’t let her fall. Ella sucked in a harsh breath which had nothing to do with the exertion of the run. It was best not to think about where this confidence was coming from. She stole a quick look at the man beside her.
His golden mane was much longer now than when they’d first met. So much so that he now had it tied in a thick man-bun with a leather tie. It sat proudly on the thick column of his neck. With his prominent widow’s peak, high, aristocratic cheekbones and defined brows, it suited him. Ella shook her head to clear her head of the drooling thoughts and instead, swiped at her phone to start up the fitness app. If she was going to bust her ass in the god forsaken cold, she might as well save the evidence for later - when she undid most of this work with a thick shake!
“I’ve told you before, you don’t need the app,” James complained next to her.
“I also don’t need you,” she paused long enough to be sure James grew uncomfortable holding his breath. Then she continued, “To run with me.”
She was probably turning into a sadist for the sound of relief that came from James was music to her ears.
“You little sadist!” James echoed her thoughts and she had to laugh out loud.
“Well, it’s the truth. Besides, you don’t even run when you are with me. Look at you! You’re practically walking!”
“Brisk walking is an aerobic exercise,” James preached sincerely.
With a groan, Ella picked up her speed. That had to be the reason why James insisted on going with her on the thrice a week jog. To push her to go faster. It was just as well, she’d complete her three miles faster and be back in the warmth of her little apartment.
“We shouldn’t have done this today,” she complained when the cold in her bones refused to budge.
“You should be able to run in any condition. Count yourself lucky we haven’t yet started seriously tough training.”
Ella scoffed, “And what is that hill we climb every Saturday? A walk in the park?”
“It’ll start to feel like one by the time we’re done with your training. How’s your Arakan coming along?”
“Oh, great! In fact, I’m tempted to try a few moves on you right now!” She’d been training in the ‘street-style’ self-defense techniques for over six months now. Loosely based on a Burmese martial art, she’d grown to enjoy the easy, non-regimented nature of the martial-art.
James’s rich laughter did a better job of warming her than the jog had done so far. “That’s my girl. You can try your moves on me any time,” he invited.
A shiver ran through her at the suggestion, which had nothing at all to do with the cold outside.
Ella fell quiet as the constant pressure of maintaining her pace started taking the expected, and desired, toll on her body. A year ago, if someone had told her she’d be proud of gaining a few extra pounds of weight, she’d have laughed them off. Now, she was the proud carrier of five whole extra pounds - in lean muscle, no less - on her frame.
She felt the change before she saw it. James stiffened slightly beside her. To the few other die-hard joggers behind them, the change wouldn’t be noticeable. But she was now so tuned to James, she felt it right away. Then the tingle started at the back of her neck. Without realizing it, she slowed down.
“Keep your pace,” James ordered under his breath beside her.
Ella concentrated on keeping her rhythm as she scanned the trees around her, looking for the reason she suddenly felt like a hare in crosshairs. Besides, James had felt it too. His lazy stride had changed subtly so now he was ready to burst into action any moment.
Suddenly, Ella clutched her middle, came to a stop, and bent over coughing. James patted her back gently as she took a good look behind her. There were a couple of joggers and that’s all. Both looked harmless. It’s not like she expected them to advertise their intent to harm, but these two women seemed oblivious to everything around them but the music pouring into their ears and their footfalls drumming on the track. They really should be more aware of what’s around them. The thought made her stand up straight.
James nudged her back into a jog, but her mind travelled back to last January. It felt like a lifetime away. Her heart no longer galloped thinking about how James had attacked her in her own shop. Pinned her against the wall and then proceeded to dress her down for trusting a stranger.
He’d spent the rest of the year teaching her how to pick potential threats in her surroundings. And after being kidnapped and almost raped, again, by Christian, she was a more than willing student. These two women behind her needed to be more aware, but now wasn’t the time to teach them that. Right now, she needed to concentrate on the invisible threat prickling her skin.
Suddenly, they were in front of their building and James was punching in the access code. No doubt he’d change it as soon as they got back home. The door slid open at a snail’s pace. Oh! Why did they have to make these automatic doors so sedate! She forced herself to calm down, to keep her feet firmly planted on the ground when they were itching to move.
She took what felt like her first free breath in hours the moment the doors slid close behind her. A firm hand at the small of her back told her they were heading to James’s apartment rather than hers as was the routine. Her heart still thundering in her ears, she closed her eyes and leaned back against the wall of the smoothly gliding elevator. James already had his phone out and was tapping away at it like his life depended on it.
His apartment now felt more like an extension of her own, rather than a battleground like last year. The elevator doors opened up to spill her into the wide entryway which was far too large to be called an entryway. Leaving James behind to stow away his keys and finish whatever he was doing on his phone, Ella headed straight to the mother of all fridges. Filling up a couple of glasses of cold water, she went into the den and placed one next to James where he had his bank of screens open.
Easing herself on to the only other chair in the room, she took a refreshing sip and waited for him to finish whatever he was doing. The chair looked painfully out of place in the otherwise harsh, utilitarian room, filled with computer screens and other electronic gadgetry which she couldn’t begin to name. It was no wonder, as the chair was her choice.
James was sitting in his black gaming chair, a faint frown on his angular face. The gently curling, golden blond hair, a stark contrast to his strong jaw and wide, currently furrowed, forehead. Ella pulled her legs under herself and leaned her head back against the back of the chair. The cool velvet of the chair tickled her feet as she curled her toes in an effort to conserve the warmth earned from the run.
Gently, she trailed her finger along the intricate red flowers that stood stark against the deep green of the cover of the chair. The chair that would forever tell Ella how different James was to her ex-husband Christian, despite being so very similar to him.
They had been walking the quaint streets of Nantucket Island on their first trip together. The armchair occupying a place of honor in all its Victorian glory at the centre of the display window in the tiny, but tastefully decorated antiques shop, had snared Ella’s attention, forcing her to halt in front of the window.
“Like something here?” James had asked.
Christian would’ve hated the chair. Not the chair itself so much as its dubious provenance. Instinctively, she’d shaken her head. No. She’d come back and buy the chair later.
“Tell me,” James had insisted.
“I was just admiring the chair,” she confessed reluctantly.
Without a word, James strode forth into the shop.
“James, wait. Stop. What are you doing?” Ella rushed after him, whispering furiously.
Ten minutes later, James had struck a deal with the seller and arranged for the chair to be delivered to his apartment.
“What did you do that for?” Ella fumed.
James had shrugged lazily, “Now you’ll have something you like to sit on in my office.”
Ella sighed, stroking the silky softness of the chair - one of the many, many gestures, big and small, that’d forced her to fall in love a little more each time with James.
“What, no hot chocolate today?” James’s question drew her into the present. She didn’t have to open her eyes to know his clear blues were trained on her. She raised her head to meet his knowing gaze. As if he could read her very thoughts.
“Do you want some?” She asked, already knowing the answer.
“No. I’ll hit the treadmill,” he replied.
She nodded, making her way to her dream kitchen, while he picked up a towel from the linen cupboard and headed to the gym at the back of the apartment. Ella made herself a rich hot chocolate, categorically ignoring the thought that the little drink more than made up for the few calories her jog had expended.
“Did you change the access code?” Ella asked, leaning against the door to the gym.
“Yes. I’ve texted it to you.”
“So there was someone out there. Someone was following us?” she asked.
“Can’t be sure. But I’m not taking any chances. Keep your eyes open as usual.”
Ella nodded before turning around and leaving him to his workout. She could’ve gone down to her apartment, but she didn’t. The evening’s run had unsettled her more than she cared to admit. Knowing James was close was somehow important right now.
Instead, she leaned against the massive glass wall overlooking Fifth Avenue that made up one end of the sitting room. Its frosty cold, a stark contrast to the sweet drink warming her. She didn’t bother to turn on the lights. Technically, she knew she was far too high up for anyone to see into the apartment even if she lit it up like James did. But then, modesty wasn’t a trait he had in his repertoire. She had evidence to prove that fact. Her finger tightened around the mug thinking about the night she’d gotten said evidence.
They’d come back from dinner at one of their favorite restaurants. As was his habit, the first thing James had done after stepping into the huge sitting room, was to order, “Alexa, turn on the lights.” Instantly, the room was washed in white light.
Standing next to the large glass wall, Ella had closed her eyes against the sudden onslaught of brightness.
The room had suddenly gone still, but she’d stopped trying to listen for James’s movements around the house. He was quieter than a cat. So when his warm hands had landed on her shoulders, she’d had to suck in a quick breath. Slowly, but firmly, his hands had slid close to her neck. It wasn’t all that long ago that she’d have tensed up long before his calloused hands got anywhere near her neck.
With a quick, sharp tug, so in contrast to the way he’d touched her, James had pulled the zipper of her dress down. The satin of the dress had slid down her arms without protest, pooling at her waist. With a squeak, she’d tried to turn around, but his arm around her middle had kept her from moving. She hadn’t known he’d taken his shirt off until his warm front had covered her back.
“Look up, Ella,” he’d said, his lips and tongue in the crook of her neck, playing havoc with her nerves.
What she saw when she opened her eyes had shocked and mesmerized her in equal measure. There, against the backdrop of the glittering Fifth Avenue in the distance, was their reflection. His bronze arm was a dark, hard band around her pale middle. Her own slender reflection dwarfed, swallowed by his tall, wide frame. There was nothing between her skin and his, nothing between their skin and the world outside.
His hands moved to cover her breasts. She hadn’t been able to look away from the way his long, blunt fingers had played with her nipples. She’d almost not noticed when he’d pushed the dress down her hips. A light had flared bright outside, like the flash of a camera. She’d stood there, in all her bare glory as he wrestled to free himself of his pants.
She’d gasped and wiggled, tried again to get away. He’d allowed her to turn around, face him and feel a little bit less exposed. With a knuckle under her chin, he’d lifted her face up to his, “You know no one can see in here, don’t you? We’re far too high up. Besides, the glass is all bullet-proof.” He’d declared the last part as if that was the most important bit. As if the lack of privacy was a non-issue.
“What was that flash of light? What about binoculars?” She’d demanded.
“Look at the angle, Ella. All the lights and buildings tall enough to pose a threat are at an angle to us. Only Central Park has the full-frontal view. Only someone with a hide in one of the tall trees in Central Park can really get a look at us,” he’d explained.
Unconvinced, she’d pleaded, “At least turn the lights off, please?”
As if on cue, the lights snapped on, putting a pause on the memory reel she had running in her head. Ella closed her eyes against the sharpness and turned around to see James walk in with a towel slung around his neck. Droplets of water dripped from his hair, some to be trapped in the fine hair on his chest, while some made it to the floor. She desperately wanted to kiss the grin off his face, but knew that’d be walking right into the trap his grin was meant to set. And right now she wanted to talk even though her body was all for the kiss and everything that would follow after.
Instead, she asked, “Why do you like to have so many lights on?”
His grin disappeared. The mischief in his summer-blue eyes disappeared. His fingers which were lightly wrapped around the towel tightened until his knuckles turned white and his biceps bulged. Had she not been watching him, she’d have missed the flash of – she couldn’t be sure, but it felt like fear. Before she could name the emotion, it was masked by a hard glint that had her heart racing. Instinctively, she took a step back, only to come up against the glass.
She knew he’d never hurt her, but that was James, the man she knew. This man in front of her, was the soldier James had been. She knew enough about soldiers to know that her curious question had transported him to a place he never wanted to go, ever.
“I…I’m sorry,” she started, but stopped when he held his hand up.
With an unusually stiff gait, he moved closer to her. His eyes trained on the night outside, he cleared his throat before beginning. “On my last tour to Afghanistan, I was captured.”
Ella pulled in a quick, silent breath. This couldn’t be good. She shouldn’t have asked him to explain his insistence on having all the lights around him on. She should’ve known!
“I was stuck in a cave deep in the mountains for thirty-nine days. Thirty-nine days of complete, utter darkness. They used my own Night Vision Goggles when they came to interrogate me,” he continued, his voice hoarse.
Ella wanted to stop him. Ask him to stop reliving the nightmare simply to satisfy her curiosity. But he was staring straight ahead, blind to everything around him. She stepped closer, but was careful not to touch him.
“When they found me, I weighed a hundred pounds and had so many broken bones, cuts and burns, it took me eight weeks to get out of the hospital,” he finished.
At this very moment, Ella was glad the lights were on. She could see the strong column of his throat work as he grappled with the emotions that she’d unknowingly unleashed. His eyes stared into nothing.
She wanted to say something, do something, to take away his pain. Christian would’ve hated her for showing sympathy. But then, he’d never have admitted to a weakness. She was surprised when James let out a dry chuckle.
“If I could, I’d sleep with the lights on,” he said. For the first time since he’d started speaking about his harrowing experience, he turned to look at her. “In fact, on the nights you aren’t here, I do sleep with the lights on,” he confessed, the tentative smile playing about his lips in contrast to the challenge in his gaze.
Jesus Christ! Did he think she’d think him a coward, or not man enough, for wanting to sleep with the lights on? Tossing all doubts aside, Ella stepped closer to him, linked her arms around his neck to pull his head down and gave herself up to his kiss.