“And what if you can’t handle it?” No denial of what I’ve said.
There is a sudden, crushing pressure in my chest. This is what he is scared of, what he fears. That I can’t handle all that he is. “We both need to know if I can. I don’t want us to unravel and have to wonder if it’s because I didn’t try.”
“Okay,” I say hoarsely, and the pressure intensifies painfully. “Then I guess that’s that.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you already know I’m not what you need. I know I’m not what you need. Let’s not drag this out any longer than we have to. I’m going to pack, and—”
“No. You are not going to pack. You are not going to leave. Not after the storage unit incident.”
My insecurity sends my hand to my throat. Had he meant to break it off with me but the storage incident stopped him? “You don’t owe me a safe place to stay. I don’t need charity protection, Chris.”
“That’s not what I meant. Damn it, Sara, I don’t want you to leave.”
I hurt. He is all about pain and now I am, too. “Want, need. Right, wrong. They all just make me one big mess and I am tired of being one big mess, Chris. We, this, us—it’s all going to destroy me if we go on like this.”
“You are going to destroy me if you leave me, Sara.”
More pain. His pain this time. It radiates through his words and insinuates itself deep in my soul, like he has. And in that moment, I believe he needs me as I do him. “I don’t want to leave,” I whisper.
“Then don’t.” His voice is a soft plea, exposing the rare vulnerable side of him I find so impossible to resist. “I’ll come home tonight and we’ll figure this out together.”
“No,” I say quickly. “Don’t do that. That you want to is enough. I’ll be here when you get home. I promise. I’ll be here.”
“I can fly back there tomorrow morning.”
“No, please. Don’t. What you’re doing there is too important and I work late tonight anyway.”
“I’m coming home.” A distant voice calls his name and he adds, “I have to go. I may not be able to call you again but I’ll see you when I get there.”
“I’m not going to talk you out of this, am I?”
“Not a chance.”
We say a short good-bye forced on us by someone calling him again, and when I hear the phone go dead, I let my head fall backward to the wooden surface of the door behind me. I am far too happy that Chris is putting himself through hell to see me tonight, and he is far too willing to let it happen. What are we doing to each other? And why can’t either of us stop?
• • •
After pulling myself together, I step out of the bathroom and a prickling of awareness brings me to a halt. My gaze lifts, seeking the source. My throat tightens at the sight of Mark standing in profile to me at the counter to the right of the register, talking with Ava. I can’t see his face, but Ava does not look happy, even less so when Mark leans in closer, intimately close to her ear, to finish whatever he is saying. There is more to their relationship than I had thought and I wonder if I know any of these people at all.
Ava’s eyes lift and find mine, and I realize I’m not only staring, but have been caught. I tear my attention away and rush to my table, feeling Mark’s gaze on me, intense and heavy. I wonder if everyone else here understands that the power charging the air is him claiming the room simply by existing, or if they just feel the unidentified crackle I did upon exiting the bathroom.
I gather my things at my table, preparing to explain why I’m here instead of at the gallery. It should surprise me that Mark doesn’t approach me at my table but it doesn’t. Of course, he’s building the tension, ensuring I squirm for his enjoyment. It’s a familiar method of control to me, or rather, used on me, that fits Mark like a glove. It used to fit me as well, but not anymore. I’ve come a long way toward understanding and even seeing the positive in Mark today. Understanding doesn’t mean liking all that I see, though, and I don’t right now.
It’s not until I am almost at the door of the coffee shop that he appears at my side. Towering over me, he opens the door; his eyes dark, filled with the never-ending challenge he offers me. “I was afraid you’d gone MIA like Rebecca, Ms. McMillan.”
I blink up at him and the past few weeks have done something to my self-censorship. I seem to have none left in me. “I told Amanda where I was going. And besides, I’m not that easy to get rid of.” I push open the door and steel myself for the wind that smacks me in the face as I step outside. Mark steps to my side about the same time the double, or even triple meanings that could be taken from my words, hit me. If he’d killed Rebecca, he might think I was saying he couldn’t kill me off, too, but I don’t think that Mark killed Rebecca. He just f**ked her. In all kinds of ways. I’ve potentially just undone all I established with him by issuing him an invitation to give me a try and promising I won’t run.
I stop walking and turn to face him. “I didn’t mean that the way you might have taken it.”
His dark stare lightens with amusement. “I know, Ms. McMillan. But do remember it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind.”
“Somehow, I find it hard to believe you’d let any woman think for herself enough to do that.”