Relief washes over me. “Thank God,” I murmur.
“What about Mary?” Chris asks.
I hadn’t even considered that she was also a potential threat. Proof that my head isn’t on straight.
“Mary’s staying with her parents,” Jacob supplies. “We confirmed that she’s there now, and we put a man on her as well. I have to say, I’m baffled by Ricco’s alignment with Ava. I thought he had feelings for Rebecca.”
“He hates Mark,” I reply. “And that makes it easy for him to believe Ava when she says Mark killed Rebecca, then threatened her and forced her into a fake confession.”
Jacob seems to consider that a moment. “Hmmm.”
“Yeah,” Chris replies. “My reaction as well.”
I glance between the two of them. “What does that mean?”
“From my perspective,” Chris replies, “something doesn’t add up with Ricco.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Jacob confirms, “and a number of scenarios come to mind. Ricco’s obsession with Rebecca borders on stalkerdom. Maybe he had a fit of jealousy and killed Rebecca himself.”
My lips part in shock. “Ricco? No. There’s no scenario where Ricco kills Rebecca, and Ava confesses. That makes no sense.”
“It doesn’t have to make sense,” Chris says. “Ava’s a crazy fucking bitch and if the doctors who evaluated her don’t see that, they’re as stupid as she is insane.”
I shake my head. “No. Ricco doesn’t fit. He just doesn’t. Ryan said Ava called him the night Rebecca arrived, and the phone records confirm that.”
“Ricco tried to ruin Mark and Allure,” Chris argues, “and he did so at the risk and expense of his freedom and success. I’m not underestimating what he’s capable of.”
He’s right. I’m dismissing exactly what I’d thought on the ride over here. Ricco’s corrupted by the same irrational jealousy as Ava. This entire scenario is insanity. All Rebecca wanted was to chase her dreams, and to be loved the way she loved. Will we ever know the truth about what happened to her? Will we ever truly be safe again? I feel like we are standing in the center of evil, and the ground is an illusion.
Chris’s hand settles on my back and I sway in his direction, to the heat, the safety, the rightness that he is to me. “Sara and I are going upstairs,” he announces. “Call me if you hear anything new.”
“Is there anything either of you need now?” Jacob asks.
I snap, “For Rebecca to be alive, and this to be a big misunderstanding.” Jacob’s eyes widen, and my cheeks heat. I’m losing it again.
I turn away and walk toward the sliding door entry, tension climbing from my toes to my neck in about thirty seconds. I am tumbling down the hill I’d finally climbed.
I am not this weak. Not anymore. That was the past, the old me. The past. The past. The past. I’ll make it stop. I just need space. I need to think about my triggers. I need . . . space.
Chris murmurs something to Jacob that I can’t make out and then he falls into step with me as I enter the lobby. “Sara,” he says softly, willing me to look at him, and he is a powerful force, nearly impossible for me to resist.
But my need to hide my scattered emotions wins. This is not who he needs me to be. It’s not who I need me to be.
“Mr. Merit. Ms. McMillan.”
The greeting is delivered by an unfamiliar man in a suit and earpiece standing by the front desk. I assume he’s Jacob’s replacement.
I’m uncharacteristically unfriendly, walking on toward the elevator with barely a glance in his direction. Thankfully, Chris pauses to greet the man, giving me a chance to gain my composure. I continue on to the elevator and punch the call button. When the doors don’t open immediately I punch the button again, irritated at the way my hand shakes. Why can’t I be one of those people who hides what they feel? Someone who doesn’t shake and ramble? Someone who doesn’t—
The doors part and cut off my thoughts. I step inside the car and hit the hold button, my chance to pull myself together gone. Chris joins me inside, his fierce male energy shrinking the space, consuming me, and I swear I can no longer breathe. He steps toward me, crowding me with his big, impossibly perfect body.
He glances at the panel, punching in the code for our floor, wisps of longish blond hair teasing his cheek and jawline. Trying to dash an unexpected rush of desire, I lower my lashes before I cave in to touching him, and invite further inspection. I have no idea how I want to run from this man and kiss him in the same moment, but I know this is going to be the longest short elevator ride of my life.
His fingers curve around my waist, possessive and warm, sending darts of awareness all through my body. Flattening his palm on the small of my back, he molds me to him.
My hand flattens on his chest, in that spot over his heart that has come to feel like my spot. I don’t want to lose this, or us, or him.
“Talk to me, baby,” he prods gently, and oh, how those familiar words speak to me.
I want to tell him what I feel, but I know if I love him, I cannot. Not if I want to replace the whip. And I do. I want that for him, and for us. I love him too much for him to see Amber in me any more than he already fears that possibility. That would allow the whip to win.
Chris cups my cheeks, forcing my gaze to his, and the tenderness in his eyes could melt ice. “Talk to me,” he repeats, adding a soft command to the words.