“Ah, no. That’s not a good idea.”
Her face lights up. “A naughty gift.” She sighs. “I want a sexy, famous artist to send me naughty gifts. I’ll shut the door for you.”
I break the tape sealing the red box and laugh when I find a pink paddle and a pair of butterfly nipple clamps inside. My lips curve and heat shimmers a path through my body, but this gift makes me feel so much more than desire. He hasn’t let what he learned about Michael affect us. If he had, I don’t know what I would have done. I need the escape Chris gives me, the way I know I can just let go with him and he will never hurt me. And that’s the true gift.
• • •
It’s an hour before closing time at the gallery and I’ve spent the afternoon walking on more of those clouds, anticipating my night with Chris, when my cell phone rings. I glance at the number and I don’t know why, but the instant I see it, I go bitterly cold inside. “Dylan?” I answer, holding my breath as I await his young, cheerful voice.
The pained whisper of my name from Brandy’s lips spirals through me and tears pool in my eyes. I know what she is going to tell me. “No. It can’t be.”
“He’s gone. My baby is gone.”
“I . . .” I say the dreaded words. I can’t help it. “I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry, Brandy.”
“You need to go to Chris. He didn’t take it well. I . . . I just . . . go to him. He needs you.”
“Yes. Yes.” Oh, God. Chris. “I am. I will.”
She sobs and heaves in a trembling breath. “Call us and tell us he is okay.”
I swipe at the tears pouring down my cheeks and dial Chris. He doesn’t answer. I dial again and again. “Amanda!”
She rushes into the office and her eyes go wide. “What’s wrong?”
“Call Diego Maria’s and see if Chris is there,” I tell her and I’m already dialing Jacob.
Jacob answers. “Is Chris there?” I ask.
“No, Ms. McMillan. He’s not been in all day. Are you okay?”
“There’s been an emergency. If he shows up there, call me.”
“Are you safe?”
“Yes. It’s not me I’m worried about. It’s Chris. Just call me if you see him.” I hang up as Amanda walks back into the office. “He’s not there.”
“Do you have the number for the coffee shop?”
“Yes. You want me to call?”
“No. Just get me the number.”
She darts away and buzzes my desk. I dial the number and a man answers. “Is Chris Merit there?” The answer is no. “Is Ava there?” The answer is also no. My stomach roils. I hunch over my desk.
Mark appears in my doorway. “Dylan, the cancer patient Chris and I are so fond of”—I suck in a breath of air—“he . . . he . . .” I can’t say it.
“That explains it then.”
“Why Chris is at the club.”
My world spins and then crashes into a million pieces and I start to shake, tears spilling like waterfalls from my eyes.
“Ms. McMillan,” Mark snaps sharply, and somehow he is standing over me and I don’t remember him moving. “Pull yourself together, get your purse, and come with me.”
I have no idea why but his command is so compelling that I almost robotically reach for my purse and force myself to my feet, using the desk for stability. I can’t make it any further. I wobble and sob.
Mark wraps an arm around my waist and catches my chin, forcing my gaze to his. “Ms. McMillan.” His thumb swipes away my tears. “I warned you Chris was f**ked-up. You accepted that. Did you not?”
“There are no ‘buts’ today. Today you accept how he deals with pain, or you don’t. Choose now.”
“I’m trying. I just . . . I thought . . .”
“Don’t think. It will get you into trouble. You’ve made this choice long before now. Accept his way even if you don’t understand it, or walk away.”
I wet my parched lips. “I accept,” I whisper.
He sets me away from him. “Then let’s go.”
“To my club.”
Mark and I don’t speak during the twenty-minute drive. He seems to understand that the tiniest thing might send me into an eruption of tears again. I rest my head on the soft leather seat of his Jaguar, watching the lights and stars flicker by the window. I dig deep inside myself to reopen the black pit I’d buried my emotions in before finding the journals, before finding Chris. I need that place I’d hoped to never go to again, to survive this, and I wonder now if I should have ever left it behind.
Slowly, I harness a thin veil of composure that is momentarily threatened when I spot the gates of the massive mansion that is Mark’s club deep in the elite Cow Hollow neighborhood. Will I find Chris with another woman? I can handle a lot but these two things, I don’t know if I can.
We park in front of the long stairwell and a suited security guard wearing an earpiece opens my door. I don’t move. I can’t move.
Mark commands me to look at him. This time his Master routine doesn’t work. I stare straight ahead. I am clear-minded enough to wonder about his motives behind bringing me here, despite being grateful he’s given me the chance to face this thing with Chris regardless of the outcome. But Mark’s motive could be an effort to tear me and Chris apart—or a true worry about an ex-friend he still feels some connection with. I’m not sure it matters. The outcome of this night will be determined by me and Chris and no one else.