Over the next hour, Chris and I mingle with the lively crowd, and I’m relieved when we relax into a light, fun evening. I revel in how he touches me often, each brush of his hand adding warmth to my soul, where he has found a place and taken root. And when our eyes meet, awareness sizzles through me that that has nothing to do with the never-ending friction created by the rubies, and everything to do with our deepening bond. I am happy, and that isn’t something I remember being much in my adult life. Happy never lasts but I plan to fight for it this time.
I spot the waitstaff preparing a table filled with a variety of coffee and chocolate concoctions with whipped cream, and while I am dragging Chris in that direction, he is accosted by an excited, sixty-something fan. Seems she has a paintbrush he’d autographed at another event and she wants another for her son.
“I’ll be at the chocolate,” I tell him. I kiss his cheek, whispering, “Next to you, it’s my favorite temptation.”
He whispers something in French and I have no doubt it’s naughty. I bite my lip at just how sexy it sounds.
I’m still smiling inside over the exchange when I am handed a mocha with whipped cream on top. I move to a small round standing table and scoop up a spoonful. It’s delicious, like my flirtation with Chris. I’m amazed at how comfortably me I am with him.
I freeze with a second spoonful of sweet cream in my mouth, and my eyes are locked on the tuxedo directly in front of me, on the familiar hand now resting on the white tablecloth. On the familiar voice that might as well be acid burning a path down my spine. It can’t be. He can’t be here. It’s been two years of silence, since I threatened a restraining order. Two years I thought would be forever.
Slowly, I set down my spoon on the saucer and curse the tremble of my hand I know he will see. He is a manipulator, a user. A bastard I never wanted to see again but I am not the girl I was five years ago or even two years ago. I will not cower.
Steeling myself for the impact, I lift my gaze, but I do not see the man whom most see as personifying tall, dark, and handsome. Nor do I feel the striking impact of his crystal blue stare the way others do, the way I once did. I see nothing but the monster I discovered the last time we saw each other.
“Michael.” I hate how his name rasps out of my mouth, how my throat tightens uncomfortably. How I am letting him have an impact on me. I feel a moment of panic, a sense of the ground falling out from under my feet. No. This isn’t when or how Chris was supposed to learn about my past. He has too much on his shoulders this weekend to carry my load, too. Which is why I cannot crumble. I won’t. I will be strong.
My fingers curl into my palms. “What are you doing here?”
“I saw your picture in the paper, and needed to take a trip to our research facility in Silicon Valley anyway. Your father and I thought it was a perfect opportunity to contribute to a good cause and catch up with you at the same time.”
My father—who has not made one single attempt, with all the resources he possesses, to contact me in five years. Who wasn’t even at the event to honor my mother, and where I last saw Michael. I hate how much his actions still twist me into knots. I hate how much I ridiculously yearn for a parent who never gave a damn about me, who never gave a damn about my mother, who loved him with all of her heart.
My lips tighten. “We both know my father didn’t send you here.”
“Actually, he did. See, we keep tabs on you, Sara. We always have. That means we keep tabs on the people you include in your life. Which brings me to the here and now and your recent choice in companions.”
Heat floods my face and my heart races wildly. “What does that mean?”
“It means that Chris Merit has some interesting diversions, don’t you think?”
My heart explodes in my chest. Chris. He’s using Chris against me. He knows about the club. That has to be what he means. This can’t be happening. It can’t be happening.
He continues, “We’d hoped you’d realize his destructive nature and walk away, but now that you’re going public with him, getting your picture snapped and slapped in the newspapers, we can’t stay out of what could be damaging to you and us.”
“Us?” I demand. “You’re not a part of any ‘us’ I am a part of.”
“Wrong again. See, as your father’s new VP, what hurts him hurts me, and vice versa. And I’m quite certain a children’s charity would be more than a little disturbed by Chris’s interests. Don’t you think?”
He’s obsessed and sick. “You just want me so I can inherit and you can take my money.”
He leans closer and it’s all I can do not to jerk back, to show weakness. “I just want the woman I love to come home, Sara.” There is no love in his voice, only possessiveness, ownership. “I’m at the Marriott airport hotel. I expect to see you soon.” He steps around me and he is gone, leaving me in the quicksand of his threats.
I stand there frozen, eroding inside. The room falls away and there is nothing but what happened two years before, and the black hole of my torment. And the certainty that I brought this on myself and Chris, with my actions, my foolishness. My weakness. I’d just been so damn alone, so lost, and Michael had been the one connection I had to my mother, and the father who seemed to want nothing to do with me. And he’d seemed different. Or maybe I just wanted him to be different. Deep down, I’d craved an excuse to go home, to have a home. Michael had been warm and charming, and I’d felt like I was meeting him all over again, that I’d judged him harshly in the past. But I’d been wrong, so very wrong.