“He was my idol who was never home. I worshiped the ground he walked on, just like my mother. I had no idea we were his token family to look good for business or whatever his reason was for keeping us around. I think it was about power. Or because he could. Or because he didn’t want my mother to get all his money. I have no clue. I stopped trying to figure it out years ago. There had to be a reason that made sense to him.”
“Do you think your mother knew why?”
“I think she convinced herself he loved her. She was blinded by love.”
“Don’t take this wrong,” he warns gently, “but was it love, or the money?”
I hate the question I’ve asked myself, and rejected, too many times to count. “I don’t know really what was in her head. The mother I thought I knew wasn’t the one I discovered after I took those glasses off.” I shake my head. “But no. I never felt like she was about the money.” My mind travels the past. “She gave up everything she loved but painting. She’d hide her work and supplies when he was home.”
“You said she created your love of art.”
I nod. “Yes. Very much so.” I let out a heavy sigh, trying to escape the tight sensation strangling my airways. “Looking back, it was an abusive relationship, almost like Stockholm syndrome, where the captive adores her captor.”
The plane jumps again and I grab his hand. As his strength and encouragement seep into me, I’m glad I told him.
“Do you have any of her artwork?” he asks after a few moments.
“No. After I left for college she gave it up completely. My father wanted her time spent doing high-profile charity events that made him look good. She was coming home from one of the events organized by the network when she died. He wasn’t even in the country at the time, of course.”
“That’s why you blame him for her death.”
My gaze drops to my hand that has somehow settled on his leg. I relive a searingly vivid memory of the moment I heard my mother was dead. Chris caresses my cheek. “You okay?”
“I just . . . I’m remembering the day she died.” I have to mentally shake myself to continue. “I don’t blame him for her death. I blame him for her miserable life. Though she made her own choices, that doesn’t make his abuse of her acceptable.” An acid burn slides through me just thinking about what I’m about to reveal. “He didn’t even cry at her funeral, Chris. Not a single tear. Not one.”
His hand goes to the back of my head and he rests his forehead on mine. He opens his mouth to speak and I quickly warn him, “Don’t say you’re sorry. You know that doesn’t help.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
Slowly we sink back against our seats and I settle onto his shoulder. He doesn’t say anything else, but he doesn’t have to. He’s here for me yet again, and it’s bittersweet because I know the next few demons will be more than mine. They’ll become his.
• • •
Once we’re in L.A. and in the back of a private car to the hotel, Chris checks his messages. “Blake found Ella’s flight out. It was one-way. Do you think she planned on staying in Paris and didn’t want to tell you?”
“She left everything she owns and she said she’d be back in a month.” I shake my head. “No. She didn’t intend on staying. She was going to Italy, too.”
He punches in a text to Blake with that information and gets an instant reply. “Blake says he checked any outgoing destination from Paris for Ella. There is no record of her leaving for Italy. He wants to know if you’re sure she didn’t resign her job?”
My brow furrows and I’m already dialing. “I hadn’t thought of that.” I have to leave a message for the right person. “I hope they call back quickly.”
“Find out about her status at the school, and if she hasn’t resigned I’ll have Blake’s team dig around some more.”
I nod and prepare myself mentally for the school’s returned call. Not only do I need to hear that Ella is safe, but it’s time I officially resign. It’s a bit daunting despite my new dream career.
The car pulls up to the hotel and we rush in to drop off our things in our room and head to the hospital. We arrive just in time for an event Chris is holding for a group of twenty kids all battling cancer, along with many of their parents. After Chris and I receive excited welcomes from everyone, and pose for pictures I didn’t expect to be included in but am, I finally meet Dylan, the young boy with leukemia. It’s clear that Dylan is deeply attached to Chris, and Chris to him. He’s an extremely likable kid, both friendly and smart. My heart twists at the dark circles under his eyes, his bald scalp that tells of his cancer treatments, and the frailness of his thin body, which makes him look younger than his thirteen years.
Chris takes a seat at an easel at the front of the room, and I sit beside him with Dylan. Together, Dylan and I watch as Chris draws special pictures by request. Spellbound by Chris’s interactions with the crowd, my heart is truly in my throat more than in my chest as he brings smiles to many a haunted face.
• • •
An hour into the event, I head to the cafeteria to grab Chris a drink and a candy bar since he hasn’t eaten since lunch and it’s now seven o’clock. Dylan’s mom, Brandy, a pretty thirty-something blonde, catches me in the hallway and falls into step with me. “Do you mind if I join you?”