Chris accepts the envelope, opening the flap and unfolding the paper inside to do a quick inspection. “This should do,” he says, stuffing it in his back pocket. “If my attorney needs more, I trust you’ll respond to his calls.” It’s not a question.

“I’ll do what has to be done,” Tristan assures him.

Chris studies him a few seconds and, seemingly satisfied that he means it, he reaches into his front pocket and holds out a key. “This will work on your new locks.”

Tristan reaches for it, closing his hand over Chris’s and holding it tight, but with no aggressiveness in the action. “I want to hate you. I want to blame you for her death. But the truth is that she settled for me, and I settled for her settling. Maybe if I had let her go, she’d have found her Sara, and would be alive today.” He releases Chris’s hand, and walks out the door.

Stunned, I stare after him, and Chris does the same.

Rey reappears in the doorway, glancing curiously at the two of us. “Anything I need to handle?”

“Is he gone?” Chris asks.

“Yes. He’s gone,” Rey confirms.

“And Chantal?” I ask, walking down the stairs to stand beside Chris. “Did she leave with Tristan?”

He gives me a short nod, disapproval etched in those dark, hard eyes. Chris speaks to Rey in French and Rey replies quickly and departs, pulling the door shut in his wake.

Chris finally turns to face me, his hands settling on my shoulders. “Go pack. I need to talk to Rey for a few minutes, but we’re leaving town.”

“What? I thought we weren’t leaving until closer to Thanksgiving.”

“Now we are.”

My brow furrows. The expedited trip and the exchange with Rey in French has me worried I’ve missed something. “Did Tristan threaten us before he left?”

“No. Tristan didn’t threaten us.”

“Then why are we leaving so fast?”

“Because you never taunt a wounded animal.”

I study him, my belly knotting with worry—and not for Tristan or Chantal this time. “You want distance between you and Isabel’s whip.”

“Baby, if I see Isabel, she’s the only one getting whipped.” He cups my head. “I’m fine. I’ll tell you if I’m not. But as much as I love this city, it’s emotional poison to me right now, the way I am to Tristan. Everyone can use some space.”

My hand goes to his wrist. “What happened to ‘what you don’t deal with now, you have to deal with later’?”

“We handled what we needed to handle. This is no different than any newly mended wound. You don’t go pouring salt in it and expect it to finish healing.” His thumb strokes my cheek. “Let’s give Tristan time and space. And let’s give us a break from everything but us.”

He turns me toward the stairs, leaning in near my ear. “And don’t worry about packing a lot of clothes. You won’t need them much.”

I twist around to face him again. “Are you sure?”

He steps closer, his hand settling at my waist. “I meant what I said to Tristan, Sara. You pulled me out of hell. I’m not trying to climb back in.”

I rise to my toes and press my lips to his, letting them linger there. Chris flattens his hand on the back of my head, holding me there, his breath mingling with mine, and I feel his shifting desire, the dark part of him he’s suppressing. He kisses me, a deep slide of his tongue, followed by another, before he turns me back to the stairs.

“Go pack.”

And this time I do as ordered.

Part Five

The Gift

After Chris returns from his talk with Rey, we finish packing. Within fifteen minutes, we’re on the road, nestled in the warm 911 for the hour-and-a-half drive. We clear the city and hit straight highway miles. Chris isn’t quick to make conversation, but we don’t need conversation. We are as safe inside the silence as we are outside it, which says the world to me about our relationship, considering I find empty space with anyone else uncomfortable.

About thirty minutes into our travels, Chris connects his iPhone to the Porsche’s radio, and I wait anxiously to hear what song he’ll play, certain it’s a look into his mind, and the beginning of what will become inspiration to paint a blank canvas. A Seether album is his choice, and the slow, dark rock tune named “The Gift” his selection. It’s been so long since I’ve heard it that I don’t remember the words. Lowering my seat back, I pull my jacket over me, listening intently to the words, envisioning the controlled motions of Chris’s brush and wondering what he will paint.

I’m so afraid of the gift you give me. I don’t belong here and I’m not well. I’m so ashamed of the lie I’m living.

The line about living a lie hits me hard. I sit up and lower the volume before rolling back to my side to face him. “You weren’t living a lie.”

He glances over at me. “Driving away from the pain instead of facing it is living a lie.”

“Escaping momentarily isn’t living a lie.”

“It wasn’t ever about a moment to me. It was about escaping completely.” He looks at me again before focusing on the road. “But that’s done, baby. I meant what I said to Tristan; you pulled me out of hell. And I also told you once that I was the one person who could drag you to hell, and the one person who could keep you out.” His lips hint at a smile as he looks at me. “So I’ll keep you out of hell if you’ll keep me out of hell.”

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