Careful to not wake James, Ella slipped out from under the covers. A quick glance at the little clock on the bedside table confirmed that her body clock hadn’t failed her. It was a few minutes to four in the morning. She’d been waking at this time for long enough to not bother with an alarm when she stayed over at James’s. Which was becoming more and more often lately. She so wasn’t going there!
Stuffing her feet into the fluffy slippers she kept at James’s apartment, Ella crossed her fingers as she lifted herself off of the bed. James was such a light sleeper, she hadn’t been able to get out of bed once without waking him. She hated waking him at the ungodly hour, seeing as he never ever slept before well past midnight.
As silently as she could, Ella padded to the bathroom. Half her things had somehow found their way to James’s apartment. In fact, she was surprised he’d held off for so long from insisting she move in with him. It was a good thing too. There was no way she was taking that step so soon after finding her freedom for really the first time in her life.
If someone had told her a couple of years ago that she didn’t know the meaning of freedom, she’d have laughed at them. But it wasn’t freedom if you couldn’t cut your hair the way you liked for fear of upsetting your husband. It wasn’t freedom if you couldn’t go out and meet your friends without asking your husband for permission.
Ella stared at her reflection in the mirror above the washbasin as she brushed her teeth. She loved her new look - a short bob with a million layers which curled outward softly, giving her hair a permanently mussed look. It certainly wasn’t the most chic look she’d ever sported, but she loved it. Because Christian would’ve hated it.
Ever since she’d turned sixteen, probably even before that, she’d only ever had long hair. Because Christian liked long hair. She hadn’t worn tank tops outside, because Christian didn’t like her to. She’d asked his permission whenever she went out with friends, because Christian worried about her when she was out of his sight.
“You alright in there, love?”
Ella jumped and choked on her mouth full of toothpaste foam as the groggy rumble from outside dragged her into the present. Most days she was sure she’d turned the corner and had nearly untangled the mess Christian had made of her mind. And then days like this, she knew she was still struggling with the shackles she’d lived with for so long.
The bathroom door opened, the soft light framing James in all his bare glory. His alert eyes took in everything in a split second and his taut body relaxed visibly as he convinced himself that she was alright. With the grin that’d surely broken a thousand hearts he stepped further into the bathroom. “Morning, beautiful.”
He walked right up to her until his hardness brushed her midriff, bare between the tank and shorts. Ella leaned back, an instinctive reaction to his large form looming over her. Her fingers curled around the bench as the marble dug into her hips.
James leaned down and nuzzled the crook of her neck before tasting her with a lazy sweep of his tongue. She shivered as she pulled her hands from the cold bench and clutched his warm waist. “I was worried you’d fainted or something in here,” he whispered, straightening to his full height.
Ella shook her head, her mouth still full of toothpaste which had now started burning the inside of her cheek. She gave him a small push. James took the hint and left, closing the door softly behind him. With a happy sigh, Ella turned around to finish her morning routine. Outside, the bed was empty. Yet again, she’d destroyed what little sleep he got.
Ella looked around for her robe, but it seemed to have gone missing. It was probably still in her apartment, waiting for a wash, or in the dryer. The rest of the apartment would be much colder. Looking around, she spotted James’s robe. Grumbling, she pulled it on and cinched the belt around her waist. Understandably, the robe was huge, its shoulders drooping almost to her elbow and the hem skimming her ankles.
If he dared laugh at her drowning in the ridiculous robe, his day was going to start off on a tough note! That decided, Ella made her way down the stairs. The house was quiet. Not surprising though, because James was quiet as a mouse. She chuckled. James and a mouse didn’t go together in one sentence, unless, of course, James was hunting the mouse. Yeah, he was more like a large lion prowling around the house on silent feet.
At the bottom of the stairs, she walked on straight into the chef’s dream of a kitchen and turned the coffee machine on. He’d scent the coffee soon enough and come out of his den. She didn’t bother to smother the chuckle that bubbled up again. She was on a roll today with the lion and den metaphors.
Ella placed the steaming mugs of coffee and hot chocolate on the coasters sporting an intricate blue and white pattern. Another small addition she’d made to James’s black and white theme sometime during the past year. Wrapping her hands around the warm mug, she waited for James to appear. He liked his coffee hot, so wasn’t going to waste time coming for it. It was scary how many of these small little things she already knew about him. When he didn’t turn up for a while, she picked up his coffee along with her mug and made her way down the hallway to his den.
The door was wide open and the room was empty. Ella’s heart skipped a beat. Where was he? Being the paranoid man he was, he could’ve been checking out her apartment or shop. But then she’d have seen him on one of the dozen monitors that lined an entire wall of the den. The first time she’d seen the monitors, she’d been shocked. In equal measure, by the fact that he had so much gadgetry in his office and that some of the gadgetry was actually dedicated to surveilling her shop and her apartment floor.
As it was, now she knew he had surveillance cameras around her shop and outside her apartment, along with a ton of other security measures, for her own safety. She knew how the things worked, and more importantly, she had the freedom to turn the surveillance off if she felt like it.
She hurried back outside. She’d barely been in the bathroom for five minutes after him. After the scare from last evening, she was edgy. Placing the drinks back on the counter she strode to the door. She was about to wrench the door open when she stopped. What if the security had been breached. After having spent half his life as a special forces operator in the US army, James’s security was far, far beyond the capability of your regular Joe Thief to breach.
But, Christian? Ella wouldn’t be at all surprised if Christian managed to breach that security. After all, as a fellow spec-ops operator, Christian was forged in the same fire as James. Just her luck to be surrounded by these supremely capable, highly trained men, both bent on ‘protecting’ her. The only difference being one had always expected her to bend to his wishes and the other was willing to give her room to live her own life. She shook her head. As if that would dislodge the confusing thoughts assaulting her. Suddenly, the door in front of her was shoved, sending her stumbling back with a gasp.
“Jesus Christ, Ella. What were you doing standing behind the door?” James asked as he snaked his arm out to steady her.
“I got worried when I couldn’t find you at home. Where were you?” Ella asked, her voice still shaky from having the door nearly slam into her. If he had used a tad more force pushing the door open, she would’ve been sporting a crooked nose for the rest of her life.
“I wanted to scout your apartment and the shop before you went out,” he said.
“The cameras - ”
“If I could hack the feed, so could someone else!” James snapped, shocking her into silence. He let go of her and prowled to the other end of the room. Running a frustrated hand through his hair, “Damn! I hate that the asshole is still running around free.”
“Did you see someone following us yesterday?” Ella asked.
James shook his head.
“Then why are you spooked?”
“Because you’re heading down there when it’s pitch dark outside.”
He hadn’t raised his voice, but his anger was a hurricane buffeting her. She’d meant to go to him, lay a calming hand over his. Instead, her feet took her backwards, putting more distance between them. No matter how angry he was, he wouldn’t hurt her, ever. She was as sure of it as she was sure the sun would come up over the East river in a couple of hours.
With a deep breath, Ella forced herself forward and placed her palm flat on his broad back. Muscles strained and moved under her touch, but he didn’t turn around to face her.
“You know I’ll be careful,” she started.
He turned around then. Ella made to step back, to give him room. But his fingers locked around her wrist, keeping her in place. “Move in with me,” he demanded.
“You live here half the week anyway. I’m not asking you to give up your apartment. You can keep it. It’s far easier to protect one base, well, two bases counting your shop. Besides, you love this kitchen.” At least he’d tried to gift wrap what was essentially an order.
Moving in with James was giving up her hard earned freedom. At least in her mind, that’s what it was. She hadn’t been away from Christian long enough to believe in a relationship that was equal measures give and take. But she didn’t have the words to explain this to James in a way that didn’t make her look like a wimp. So, she settled for, “I can’t.”
“You won’t,” James called it for what it was.
James tugged, pulling her closer still. “I could force your hand,” he whispered.
She flinched and tried to push away from him. With a curse, he looped his arm around her waist and hauled her into him. “Jesus! I’m sorry, Ella. I didn’t mean it like that. I’m worried sick that I’ll take my eyes off you for a moment and something will happen to you.”
“Please,” he continued. “I’m sorry.”
Ella leaned back in his arms so she could look into his eyes. What stared back at her was not the clear blue eyes she was used to, but dull remorse. “It’s too soon for me to even think about moving in with anyone, let alone another man as…” She trailed off, looking for the right word. Finally, she settled on, “...insistent as you are.”
James let out a pained sigh, then gently covered her trembling lips with his own. If he was trying to say sorry, to tell her how he worried about her, he was succeeding.
Finally, he murmured, “You’ll be the death of me. But I trust you to be careful. Keep your eyes and ears open at all times, understand?”