It hits me that she has just called him by name, and it throws me for a loop since no one else but Chris does. But then, what else would someone he’s acquainted with, but not ha**ng s*x with, call him?

“Yes,” I confirm, and try to find an angle to discover how well Ava knew Rebecca. “I wonder if Rebecca went through this or if he’s reserved the fun for me. He does seem to enjoy the irony of the schoolteacher doing homework.”


Her lips lift. “Men do seem to have little schoolteacher fantasies, don’t they?” she asks, leaving Rebecca out of the picture.

I grimace at the familiar comment. “In my experience, all the wrong men.”

“I think you’ll discover at least one man worthy of a fantasy or two. How’s a certain sexy artist we both know and lust over?”

The sting of her question is instant. Silly as it might be when she’s probably just making girl talk, saying the things girls say to each other about a hot man, jealousy flares inside me and I try unsuccessfully to squash it.

“Actually,” I comment a bit hoarsely, eager to change the subject, “today I’ve got an artist on my mind all right. Have you met Ricco Alvarez?”

“I know him, yes. He used to stop by quite frequently and make small talk.”

“Then you know he’s not working with the gallery anymore?”

“Didn’t he just do the charity event?”

“Yes, but apparently that was set up before Rebecca left. When she left, he left.”

“Ouch. I bet Mark isn’t happy about that, but Rebecca coddled Alvarez. I assume this is his form of throwing a fit.”

“Rebecca coddled him?” I ask, hopeful I’m leading her to real answers.

“Well, that’s what I gathered. I’m everyone’s bartender during working hours. They grab some coffee and ramble. In Rebecca’s case, she’d come in excited about this sale or that sale, which led us to talk about Ricco. She was protective of him, and seemed to get his artistic temperament when no one else did.” She shivers. “It seemed a little weird. Almost like she had a father syndrome for him, when you know a man that, despite being in his forties and twenty years her senior, wasn’t seeing her as a daughter.”

She doesn’t have to explain what she means. My father has a thing for women in exotic places not much older than I am. “I’m meeting with him tonight to try to talk him into some private showings. Anything I should be concerned about?”

Her big, dark brown eyes, a shade darker than mine, go wide. “You talked him into seeing you?”

“Yes, I—”

My phone rings and I forget everything else but checking the number and confirming Chris is calling. “I need to get this.”

Her brows furrow and she seems a little put off. “Sure. We’ll chat later.”

“Thank you. I’m sorry. It’s important.” I push the button to accept the call but I glance at Ava, who is still a little too close. “Hold on one second, Chris.” A quick look around and I’m excruciatingly aware of nearby customers, the small environment, and I wonder why I thought this was a good place to do this. “Actually, I need to go somewhere I can talk freely. That is, if you have a few minutes?”

“Yes. Of course, I do.” The deep, rich tone of his voice radiates through me, and despite my anxiety over the call, I shiver with awareness. This is the power this man has over me, and the prospect of losing him if this talk goes poorly is piercing.

I glance toward the door and quickly nix the idea of focusing in the chill outside, instead making a beeline for the single-stall bathroom, where I lock the door behind me. “Okay. Can you hear me?”

“I can,” he says, “and why do you sound about as flustered as the night I called you and you’d just left the storage unit?”

“Because in a different way, I am,” I surprise myself by confessing. “Are you somewhere you can talk?”

“Yes. What’s wrong, Sara?”

“Nothing.” I’m pacing the small space. “Not really. I just don’t want there to be anything wrong, Chris. And I better warn you that I’m going to ramble. That’s what I do when I’m nervous.”

“You don’t have to be nervous with me. Not ever. Just say what’s on your mind, and sooner than later, before you’re making me insane trying to guess what’s going on.”

“I will. I am. I—well, I’ve had pink paddles and butterflies on my mind and—”

“We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”

“I know and that’s the point. Or not really the point.” Here comes the rambling. “The real point is that you’d take me to pink paddle and butterfly land, but you aren’t pink paddles and butterflies. You’re leather and pain and darkness.”

“That’s how you see me, Sara?”

“That’s who you are, Chris, and I like who you are and that means I need to be those things, too.”

“Sara—”

“Please let me finish before I can’t.” My knees wobble and I lean against the wall. “I’ve let fear of failure hold me back for all kinds of reasons that are too complicated to explain at this moment, and I’m not sure I really understand fully myself, but I’m trying. I don’t want to let it hold me back now, so I’m just going to say what’s on my mind without even taking a breath here. I know I said I’m not about white picket fences, and I’m not, and never will be, but I can’t imagine being without you, either. What that means to me is that I need to go where you need me to go. And don’t tell me you don’t need anything but me. I wish that were true and it means a lot when you say it, but you have a way you deal with life, a place you go to escape. Everything from the painting, the club, the way you are in general, tells me that. I don’t want someone else to be there when you need those things. I want it to be me. I want you to trust me not to run.” I stop talking and the dead space afterward is unbearable and I can barely contain an urge to fill it with more words. “Chris, damn it, say something. I’m dying here.”

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