“It was when I finally felt in control for the first time in my life. I have an ex-student to thank for that. Elizabeth’s father was beating her and her mother. She often came to school with bruises, and I’d made efforts through my superiors to get her help. She and her mother denied there was a problem, but I bonded with the girl. Gradually, she shared small details.”

“You saw yourself in her.”


“Yes. I was never beaten, but the pain both my father and Michael had caused me was very present for me. And the way her mother didn’t get her out of the situation was a hot button, too. I loved my mother, but she accepted my father’s abuse.”

“So you got stronger for Elizabeth?”

“Oh yes. Teaching brought out this mama bear quality in me.”

“What happened to Elizabeth?”

“Her mother showed up at the school one day with the car packed up to leave. When I walked them to the parking lot, the dad showed up.” I shake my head. “It was bad. He was violent, and he lunged at the mother. She’d finally stood up for herself and her daughter, and I couldn’t let him hurt her. I jumped between them.”

“Oh fuck, baby, what happened?”

“He broke my nose. I sent him to jail. Elizabeth and her mother left town, and I never heard from them again.”

Understanding seeps into his expression. “And the panic attacks stopped.”

“Yes. And from that point on, I swore no one else would ever control me again. But you . . . you are the one person who makes me feel I can let the walls down without any repercussions. That’s trust, Chris.”

“But you didn’t let the walls down tonight.”

“And I told you why.”

His hands slide around my neck. “You aren’t Amber. You will never be Amber. She sought out the whip to get my love. You only need to breathe, and you have it. What you see as flaws, I see as perfection.”

“Chris,” I whisper, too choked up to manage more. I love him with all my heart and soul.

“No one,” he adds, his tone raw, “most especially Amber, is ever coming between us.” He kisses me, a deep, passionate kiss that has my head spinning. “Let’s get out of town after the hearing tomorrow,” he says, tearing his mouth from mine. “We’ll go see Katie and Mike. We have a wedding to plan.”

His message is clear. Nothing I’ve confessed changes his intent to make me his wife.

“I don’t want to get married in the middle of this hell,” I say. “I want the day I marry my best friend to be special.”

“Best friend?” he asks, his eyes lighting.

“You are. You know that, right?”

“And you’re everything to me, Sara. Screw everything else; we’re planning our wedding. We can set the date later. And I’m going to have the jeweler I told you about meet us at Katie and Mike’s.” He brushes his lips over mine. “I want to show you something.” He leans back and reaches between the bed and the dresser, producing a sketch pad. “The ring I designed.”

I straighten, eager to see his creation. “Yes. Please.”

Mischief fills his eyes. “That’s twice you’ve said that tonight.” My cheeks heat and he laughs. “I’m planning on making it three before the night is over.”

I give him a scolding look and reach for the sketch pad. “Stop teasing me. I want to see the design.”

“Hold on.” He turns a page and then allows me to see the sketch. I blink down at the ridiculously large round stone surrounded by an elegant design, momentarily mesmerized by his gift for detail. But as I study the wide band, I blink again and tell myself I’m not seeing what I think I am. Yet it is. He’s designed a delicately woven vine of roses, and now that I look closer at the stone, it too, is a rose.

Shocked, my gaze lifts to Chris’s, but my questions fade when I see a rare anxious uncertainty in his eyes. He has no idea that this is a connection to Rebecca; he’d refused to read the journals and I’ve never talked about the roses. This means something else to him—something special I don’t want to ruin.

He strokes my cheek. “If you don’t like it—”

I smile tenderly. “I love it. I absolutely love it.”

His brows knit. “You’re sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.” I want to ask him what inspired the roses, but he sets the pad aside and lowers me to the bed, his big, wonderful body covering mine. A moment later he is kissing me. Another moment later and his hand is traveling to my waist, my breasts, and my neck.

I don’t care about the roses. I care about the man who created a masterpiece for me.

Fifteen

It’s nearly dawn when I fall asleep in Chris’s arms, but I awaken instantly with the alarm and reach for the remote to tune in to the news. Chris quickly removes it from my hand and drags me to the shower, where he successfully distracts me from my worries about the bail hearing.

But an hour later I’m a ball of nerves again, and I begin pacing under the awning of our apartment building while we wait for our car to be pulled around, somehow managing to trip over my own feet. Tumbling forward, I’m thankfully saved as Chris shackles my waist and steadies me. “Stop fretting or I’m going to turn you over my knee.”

I gape. “What?”

He laughs, a deep, sexy rumble. “That’s the amazing thing about a spanking,” he says, his voice a naughty whisper near my ear. “Just the threat makes you forget everything else.”

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