“I’ll stay back,” I promise, “but please be careful. You know what pain can do to someone.”
“Chris!” Tristan shouts. More knocking follows.
Chris’s jaw tightens and he walks down the stairs, his pace remarkably controlled, his boots nearly soundless on the steps. He’s wearing his emotional armor, and it’s a good thing, since Tristan appears to have none of his own. Reaching the door, Chris pauses for several beats, in no rush to invite Tristan inside. I can only hope that the overhang above our door is keeping Tristan dry, because wet and angry has to be worse than just angry.
Holding my breath, I watch the slight flex to Chris’s shoulders and I can almost feel him mentally steel himself for the confrontation.
When he finally opens the door, Tristan immediately demands, “What the fuck are you trying to prove?”
I gasp in horror as Tristan shoves Chris against the wall, water dripping off of his black rain jacket, his long locks in wild disarray. “What the fuck are you trying to prove?” he demands again.
My heart lurches and I raise my phone to dial the police, when Chris shifts and turns, and suddenly it’s Tristan who’s against the wall. “I gave you two options,” Chris growls out, hands clenched around Tristan’s jacket lapels, “both of which save you from your anger and pride. Take the damned tattoo parlor, and I’m out of your life.”
“I told you I’m trying to buy it—but you had to be a little bitch and flex all that cash you roll around in.”
“You’re the one being a little bitch, Tristan,” Chris replies. “Hate me. Blame me. But man up and do what we both know is smart. Sign the papers.” He lets go and puts two paces between them. “End this now, Tristan. You want to buy the place? Send a donation to the Children’s Cancer Association.”
“Right. Your charity. Your way to convince yourself your soul isn’t absolute oil. But we both know the truth, now don’t we?”
Chris just stares at him, hard and long, and I count one, two, three, and never make four on account of the sudden quake of thunder that makes me jump. Chris remains unfazed, stone that seems harder with each passing second, and I know that the storm brewing inside him is far worse than the one outside.
Tristan says something to Chris in French and Chris replies in French, his tone cool as he adds in English, “Amber would want you to have The Script.”
Tristan’s lips twist in a bitter smirk. “Amber would want a lot of things; none of them me. She wanted you.”
“She was an addict, and I was the one person who understood the drug. She shut you out to hold onto the addiction.”
Abruptly, Tristan’s head jerks in my direction, his gaze falling heavily on me for two beats that feel like punches, before he looks at Chris again. “She’s the same kind of fool as me. She thinks she can save you, like I thought I could save Amber.”
“Sara did save me,” Chris says, his voice taking on a rough quality. “She pulled me back into this world, and she keeps me here. And I know you think I could have pulled Amber back—but I couldn’t. Not when she looked in my eyes and saw the hypocrite who still needed the drug himself.”
I slump with the impact of his confession, so etched in guilt and self-hatred.
Tristan feels the force, too. I see it in the way his lashes lower, his fingers curling into his palms. “And I was simply the other guy.” His voice cracks, and, obviously shaken, he turns to face the wall, pressing his hands on the hard surface as his chin sinks to his chest.
I gape as Chantal appears in the doorway, rushing to him and ducking under his arms to face him. I sway, about to charge down the stairs, but Chris holds up a hand to still me, never taking his eyes off of Tristan and Chantal.
Abruptly, Tristan turns, putting his back to the wall, away from Chantal. His gaze lands hard on Chris and he takes a calculated step toward him again. Chantal insinuates herself between them, flattening her hands on Tristan’s chest, and shouting, “Non!” followed by a rant in French.
There is movement by the door again, and my gaze jerks in that direction, where Rey now stands, looking big, broad, and intimidating. His hard stare is fixed on Chantal’s hand on Tristan’s chest. His anger is downright palpable. “Come with me, Chantal,” he orders, his tone as tight as a rubber band stretched to the limit. She doesn’t move, and he tilts his head slightly, his eyes sharpening with a challenge. “I said, come with me.”
She half turns toward Tristan, who cuts off any intent she might have with a command of his own. “Go, Chantal. You don’t belong in the middle of this.”
Her eyes flicker in my direction and then dart away as she takes a step toward Rey, who steps aside and follows her out the door. Watching them disappear, I feel the sting of Chantal’s rejection. Chris was right. If I warn her off of Tristan, I will lose her completely.
“I’ll take The Script,” Tristan announces to Chris, his voice raspy as if he is choking on emotion, “because I’m the only one who held it together when she couldn’t get out of bed from being whipped so hard. You did that to her, Chris Merit. You made her the addict that she was.”
Chris doesn’t let himself be baited, simply asking, “Do you have the papers with you?”
Several beats pass and I think Tristan will throw another verbal punch, but he does not. Instead, he reaches into his jacket pocket, removing an envelope and handing it to Chris. “This is the signature page.” The implication is obvious. He signed the contract before he came here. He knew he had to accede to Chris’s terms. He just didn’t like it.