“How?” he finally asks.

“She hung herself.”

“And the fucking rehab facility let it happen? I was paying to have her protected, and where is my phone call? They’re probably too busy talking to their attorneys for fear I’m going to sue their asses.”

“I know. I thought the same thing.”

He pulls his cell phone from his pocket and dials, surprising me when he leans on the glass next to me, though we’re still not touching. I listen as he talks to the rehab facility and then to David. He’s calm. Controlled. The way he handled an awards banquet for the Children’s Hospital when he was bleeding inside.

He finishes the calls and drops the phone to the floor. And then we just stand there side by side against the window, hanging over the city. Time stands still. There is only his pain, which slices and burns through the room like boiling acid.

Eventually, without a word or a glance in my direction, he pushes off the window, crossing the room, and I fear the moment he will walk to the elevator, the moment he’ll seek the whip and I’ll have to stop him.

But he doesn’t turn for the elevator. He turns right and makes a path to his studio. Relief washes over me. He’s staying. He’s fighting this with me. I don’t know if he wants me to follow now, but I have to. I have to know he’s okay.

I follow and tentatively enter the studio, stopping inside the doorway. The windows surrounding the U-shaped room deliver all darkness, and no light. There’s a rustle of clothing, a flicker of movement, but I can make out nothing but the outline of Chris’s body.

Then a small light flickers on, a barely-there glow casting the studio in shadows, and I’m relieved when I see that he’s removed his shirt, shoes, and socks. This is how he paints, and his art is how he’s going to deal with his pain. Certain he knows I’m here, I sink down the wall and watch as he steps to an easel and starts to paint in silence.

I watch him stroke paint onto the canvas and I know fairly quickly that he’s creating a dragon, his symbol of strength, and one that Amber had inked permanently on his body. Hours pass, I think, and I take off my own shoes and socks, curling my knees to my chest. Ready to act the moment he needs me, I watch Chris’s grief bleed onto that canvas. I’m entranced by every flip of his hand, every tease of color, as the dragon becomes the one on his shoulder and arm. Abruptly he steps back and drops the brush, and just stands there staring at his work. And then, he crumbles. He falls to his knees, and his head drops forward.

I’m crossing the room to him in an instant, and rest my hands on his shoulders. He pulls me onto my knees in front of him, his hands coming to my face as I stare into his bloodshot eyes and tear-streaked face. “I don’t need the whip. I need you.”

“I’m here,” I promise, heartbroken but relieved. “I’m here.”

He tangles his fingers in my hair, letting his pain spill out. “I can’t lose you.”

“You won’t. Never. I promise.”

He drags me down to the floor with him, holding on to me like he’s afraid I’ll escape and be lost forever. “You can’t promise that,” he whispers into my hair. “None of us can.”

I cup his face, forcing him to look at me. “We also said no regrets,” I remind him. “We won’t ever have any.”

“I have so many with her. Too many. I thought . . . I tried . . .”

“I know you did. Remember what you said about Ricco and Ava: We choose what we do with the life we’re given, and we live with the results. Free will. You choose to help other people. You helped her.”

“I fucked her life up.”

“No, you did not. She had problems and we were getting her help.”

“Too late. I knew she needed that kind of help, but I didn’t act on it until you saw it, too.”

“Don’t do this to yourself, Chris. Don’t.”

His fingers find my face, my hair, and my lips and then he’s kissing me, salty tears trailing down my cheeks and his. We end up on our sides facing each other, undressing each other right here on the hard floor. But it doesn’t matter. We gasp in unison when he enters me, and I cling to Chris, holding him a little too tight, like I plan to do for the rest of my life. I don’t know where he begins and where I end, but maybe that’s the glory of who we’ve become. We begin and end together. We’re a puzzle that fits perfectly together, where we fit nowhere else. And right now we’re seeking peace in the only place we know to look—each other.

When the wild frenzy of passion passes, we don’t move. Thunder rolls outside the windows, rain starts to patter on the glass, and we just hold each other, finally falling asleep.

• • •

A week later, Chris and I sit at the kitchen table surrounded by windows, the ocean glistening like blue silk beyond the glass. I’m in his T-shirt and he’s in his pajama bottoms that I insisted he wear to allow me to focus on cooking breakfast. We’ve just finished our omelets and the news is playing, reporting nothing we don’t already know.

Ava and Corey haven’t been seen or heard from, and Corey’s parents’ are making regular TV appearances claiming he’s an innocent victim. Mark has been in New York, finding sanctuary with his family, as has Crystal. Crystal doesn’t tell me much, and I pray she’s not getting in too deep.

“If Ricco’s involved with Ava’s disappearance,” Chris says, “I’d think the trial will stir anger toward Mark, and pressure him to crack.”

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones Inside Out Romance
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