• • •
It’s nearly noon when I emerge from the bedroom to find Chris staring out of the window while he talks on the phone. He’s in black Diesel jeans, a matching Diesel T-shirt, and biker boots I helped him pick out in Paris, and he’s holding a cup of coffee. The stiffness of his spine and the tension in his shoulders make me wonder if he slept much less last night than he’d let on. And if he’s worried a whole lot more than he lets on about our meeting today.
I move to sit on the overstuffed brown leather chair across from him and he turns, ending his call. His eyes light on me, the sunlight capturing the flecks of amber in his eyes and turning them golden. He moves toward me, his stride casual, his scalding inspection of my black skirt and V-neck sweater pure predator.
He claims the ottoman in front of me, his hand settling on my knee, fingers resting at the top of my boots. “You look good, baby,” he says, heat roughening his voice.
Some of that heat seems to rush to my cheeks. “Thank you. I thought I should be professional for the meeting.”
“Dress to impress yourself, not them.” His eyes twinkle with the mischief I so adore and he says, “Undress to impress me.” I try to smile, failing miserably, and Chris notices instantly. “Hey,” he says, caressing my cheek. “Ease up, baby. This meeting is nothing to worry about.”
I search his face, looking for tension, but it’s not there. Maybe I’d imagined it. “We’re going into this blind, and that bothers me. Mark won’t call us back. Neither has Ralph, though I left him two messages. Blake and David had nothing new to tell us. There has to be a reason the detective came here last night. And please tell me that was David on the phone.”
“Obviously I need to cut you off at two cups of coffee, you’re going a million miles an hour,” he teased. “And no, it wasn’t David. It was the jeweler I told you about. I sketched a ring design I plan to show you, but I wanted to be sure he could work with what I had in mind.”
“You sketched a ring for me?” I ask, thrilled. “I’ll have a Chris Merit original on my finger!”
“And in your bed,” he teases. “But yes. I sketched a ring. I have a few finishing touches to put on it and then I’ll show you.”
A glow comes over me. Somehow, Chris has managed to wipe away everything wrong and make everything absolutely right. I lean in and press my hands to his cheeks. “Designing my ring is the most amazing gift you could give me.”
His lips curve and he covers my hands with his, drawing them between us. “Let’s hope you think so when you see it.”
“You know I will. I don’t want to wait to see it. Can I just have a peek? Please? I don’t care that it’s not finished.”
He stands up and pulls me with him. “After the meeting with the police.”
The announcement is like a blast of winter air. “Right,” I say, swallowing a knot of reality. “The meeting.”
“David wants to meet with us at a coffee shop by the police station beforehand, but we still have plenty of time before we have to head that way. Why don’t we run by the gallery and see what we can find out about Mark? Maybe that’ll put you more at ease.”
“Yes,” I agree quickly. “I think that’s a good idea.” And it is a good idea, so why is my stomach suddenly twisting and turning?
“Ralph and Amanda are going to ask questions,” he warns.
“So are the police. It’ll be good practice, and I’ll feel better going to the station as knowledgeable as we can get.”
He gives me a keen inspection. “You’re sure?”
“Yes,” I say. “I’m sure.” He doesn’t look convinced and my stomach gives an extra jolt. Some part of me doesn’t want to return to the gallery, and I don’t know why.
Like the thorns on the roses he loves to give me, I welcome the pain of the flogger biting into my back. It is the escape from all that I’ve lost, all that I’ve seen and done, and regret doing. He gives this to me. He is my drug. The pain is my drug. It ripples through me and I feel nothing but the bitter bite of leather and the sweet silk of the darkness and pleasure that follows.
I can’t tell if Ava’s coffee shop is open as we turn down the alleyway behind the gallery. I don’t know why I even care, but considering the way my stomach starts flip-flopping at the sight of the Cup O’ Café sign, I obviously do. Maybe it’s the reason some part of me didn’t want to come here—or rather, Ava is. She’s the reason we’re all living through hell. She’s the monster who murdered Rebecca and who almost put me in my own grave.
Fortunately, it’s only a few moments later that Chris parks the 911 in the lot behind the gallery and gives me other things to think about. “That’s Ralph’s car,” I say, indicating a black Camry, the only other car in the lot. “Amanda takes the bus, but any interns would park back here, as would any sales staff. I wonder who’s running this place in Mark’s absence?”
Chris shoves open his door and sets one booted foot on the pavement. “I’m guessing that with all that he has going on, your departure, and Mary in jail, there isn’t much to run. Blake says the gallery’s been closed to the public all week. Can you call the reception desk and see if they can let us in?”
I punch in the number and get the answering service. Chris walks around the Porsche and opens my door as I leave Ralph yet another message on his private line. “No luck,” I say, letting Chris help me out of the car. “Maybe my security code still works.”