Blake’s eyes glaze over a moment, like he’s affected by this in some way, but it’s hard to read those journals and not be affected. “I was curious about her father, too. I’ve tracked down an old friend of her mother’s who swears her father is Kenneth Burgendy. Burgendy is a big real estate investor with known mob ties.”
I glance at Chris. “Neville,” I whisper. “He’s got ties to the mob, too.”
“In France,” Chris reminds me.
Blake knocks on the table to get my attention. “No connection. This reaction is exactly why I almost didn’t tell you. I knew you’d jump to conclusions.”
Tension crawls through my body. “Serial killers, mobsters, and two people connected to me are missing.” My voice is as edgy as I suddenly feel. “Why the heck would I jump to any conclusions?” Feeling claustrophobic, I stand up.
I lean into Chris and kiss him. “Sorry—I’m fine. My bitch queen and I just need a minute.”
I see the worry etched in his eyes and I repeat, “I promise.”
Looking anything but convinced, he reluctantly orders, “Hurry back.”
I follow the signs to the restroom and enter, leaning against the closed door. The sensation of suffocating from uneven breaths makes logical thought nearly impossible. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I never snap at people. And David has to leave soon, so I can’t stay here long, but . . .
Who am I kidding? I do know what’s happening. It’s been building and I just haven’t wanted to admit it. It started again in Paris, soon after Ava’s attack. And it’s why I ended up hunched over a trash can in Rebecca’s office. It’s a return to what I’d felt in random spells for six months after Michael’s attack.
I lift my face to the ceiling, forcing myself to slowly breathe in and then let it out. I don’t want to be back here. I can’t be back here again. I’m ashamed of myself for being this weak. Ashamed?
I inhale with the realization that these feelings have a purpose beyond me—an important one. This is what Chris feels about his need for the whip, and why he tries to hide from me when he does. It’s not about fear of what he’ll do to me: it’s shame. Burned deep into his soul. How will I ever convince him I’m strong enough to handle that part of him, if I’m not strong enough to handle myself?
A knock sounds on the door, and I jump. “Damn it,” I whisper, grabbing the counter. I have to pull it together. I have to go back to the table, and I’m going to do it with my shit together. I have to. For me and for Chris, Rebecca and Ella. I won’t relapse into panic attacks. I refuse to. Once I get past tonight, I’ll figure out what my trigger is, and I’ll be fine again. Like I’ve been for almost two years.
Determination in place, I yank open the door and then gape in absolute shock. Ricco Alvarez is standing in the hallway.
“Ah, bella.” Ricco’s voice is richly accented, his elegant white shirt and black slacks starched. His sharp, aristocratic features and warm brown skin are as familiar and striking as I remember, but unlike past encounters I do not welcome his visit or feel safe in his presence.
“What are you doing here?”
“We need to talk.” He advances, clearly intending to back me inside the ladies’ room.
“No.” I step into the hallway, yanking the door shut behind me. “You want to talk, we talk here.” The scent of his musky cedar-scented cologne accents the close proximity of our bodies.
His blue eyes narrow on my face, and several heavy beats pass before he steps back, giving me breathing room. “You’re afraid of me. Priceless, when I am here to warn you, to keep you safe.”
“You followed me here,” I hiss with accusation. “I don’t feel protected. I feel stalked.”
“I had to find a way to reach you when you weren’t under lock and key. I didn’t expect you to go back to the gallery. It’s not safe. You need to stay away from Mark.”
“Mark isn’t the problem.”
“You’re just like Rebecca, so damn blind to that man’s evil. I didn’t do what I’ve been accused of doing, and neither did Mary. Why would I do that? I’m a very rich man.”
“Because you hate him.”
“Yes. I do. I know he hurt Rebecca, and I pressured him at every turn. I made him nervous and that’s why he set me up.”
I shake my head, rejecting his claim. “Then why include Mary, and damage the name of his family business? He wouldn’t do that.”
“I’d asked Mary to help me, as I did you. Mark must have found out. Listen to me, bella. He’s dangerous. He killed Rebecca. I know he did.”
“Ava confessed to killing Rebecca.”
“She’s as guilty as you and Rebecca are of falling for Mark’s charms. She took the fall to save Mark, but she’s come to her senses. He’s going down. Make sure you don’t go with him.”
“She told you this?”
“I’m telling you this. Stay away from him and the gallery. Do not ignore my warning. You were almost killed once. Don’t tempt fate.” He walks away toward a rear exit and I stare after him, stunned, uncertain what to do.
I turn at the sound of Chris’s voice and launch myself at him, throwing my arms around his neck. He folds me against him and he is safe and warm, and the solidity I need when it feels like the earth is shaking around me.