“I will this time.” And I really try to mean it.
Not far from the Louvre, we pull up to a parking meter on a street that looks like any other side street I’ve seen in Paris. The same white, concrete, stucco-looking buildings lined up side by side. The same intimate sidewalks line narrow two-way roads paved with oversized bricks.
I don’t see any retail shops or restaurants, but there seems to be a valet parking cars at a building across the street from us.
“Where are we?”
“A private dinner club,” he says. “We’re avoiding the valet because we need to talk before we go inside.”
My stomach lutters. “About what?”
“Isabel and I have a history.”
Despite expecting it, the announcement still rattles me.
“What does that mean?”
“It means she’s good with a whip and at one point in my life I spent far too much time appreciating that skill.” His tone is steady, unemotional.
I feel myself go pale. This is what I’d sensed when he’d been talking to her on the phone. It wasn’t the existence of Isabel herself that had bothered me, but something in Chris’s reaction to her. I desperately try to cut through the shadows, to read his expression, but fail. Finally, I say, “What does ‘far too much time’
“It means it was an addiction and she was my drug dealer.”
Acid burns in my throat and I remember him once telling me there had been a time when the beatings were all that got him from one day to the next day. “You say that so non-chalantly.”
“Because it doesn’t matter, Sara, and neither does she. She was just the person holding the whip.”
“How often did you see her?” How often had she beaten him?
“It’s the past.”
But it’s not the past or Dylan wouldn’t have driven him to Mark’s club to get whipped again. “How often?”
“Too often and for about ive years. After that, I made the mistake of going back to her during my bad moments.” He leans close to me and his expression softens, and his voice turns tender. “Sara.” He runs a hand over my cheek and lets it fall away. “She didn’t do anything to me I didn’t ask her to do.”
And yet he’d called her his drug dealer. I don’t believe he’d call the random woman in Mark’s club who’d used a whip on him the same thing.
“We have to go inside before Neuville leaves. Isabel will try to push your buttons. I need to know you won’t let her.”
“Why would she do that?”
“Because I had an afair with the whip, not her. When I didn’t need it anymore, I didn’t need her.”
I try to control my reaction, afraid Chris will take it wrong.
Afraid he will regret how he is sharing this part of himself with me, when he hasn’t always, but anger burns through my body.
This woman fed his need to be punished. This bitch used the one weakness Chris possesses, the heartache of loss, against him.
“I can handle Isabel,” I say, and somehow I keep my voice unaf-fected, though my fury is quickly eroding my calmness.
Chris doesn’t look convinced by my façade, but he takes one glance at his watch and says, “We have to go in.” He pulls me close, caressing my hair in that familiar, wonderful way he does. “Just remember. We’re here for Ella. Isabel doesn’t matter.”
“I know.” And I do. “I can do this.”
And he’s right. Isabel doesn’t matter. Ella does, and he does.
The entryway to the dinner club is a small foyer with a coat closet and a big, burly doorman in a tuxedo.
He nods at Chris. “Mr. Merit.” Then he looks at me with a Stallone-esque, heavy-lidded expression. “And a guest, I see.”
He gives my jeans a once-over and eyes Chris. “I see she’s living by your dress code, not ours.”
Chris shrugs out of his coat and sets it by an unattended coat check area, then reaches for mine. “Neither myself nor Ms. McMillan will be staying for dinner. Isabel is expecting us.”
“Then by all means.” He steps aside and motions us up a long light of stairs too narrow for more than one person. Chris waves me forward irst. Terriic. Into the wild world of Isabel without my own whip.
I’m almost at the top of the steps when I spot a woman I am certain is Isabel. She is gorgeous, with long, silky, dark brown hair and pale skin, and a short, itted, silk emerald-green dress. There are no marks on her skin from a whip. No ink of a tattoo. There’s an unworldly quality about her, and I guess her to be at least in her midthirties. Amber never had a chance against this woman and I’m willing to bet that Isabel was who came next. I am surprised to ind I feel no inferiority to her, as I did Amber. Maybe it’s due to my improved state of mind, or the growth Chris and I have managed in these short few days. Or maybe it’s simply how much I instantly hate her for what she did to Chris.
I step onto the main dining room loor, directly in front of her.
“You must be Sara,” she purrs in English, and her accent is positively sexy.
I don’t ask how she knows who I am; I don’t really care.
“And you must be Isabel.”
“I am,” she conirms. “Welcome to my establishment.”
She owns this place? I already felt like I was on enemy territory; now I feel like I’m in a mineield.
Chris steps to my side, his hand settling on my back, his hip pressed intimately against mine. It’s a statement, and Isabel knows it. Her pale blue eyes sharpen, her red-painted lips purs-ing before her attention shifts to Chris.