“And then what? She just disappeared?”

“Yes,” Rey confirms. “But the fact that she’d changed her hair color leads me to believe she knew she was being hunted, and she’s hiding.”

I turn to Chris. “I want to go to Italy. We have to find her. We’ll look ourselves.”

Chris flicks Rey a look. “We need a minute.”

“We don’t need a minute. We need to go to Italy.”

Rey gets up and leaves.

“We aren’t going to Italy,” Chris states.

“What do you mean? I’ll go on my own if I have to.”

“No. You won’t. I’ll lock you up and throw away the key before that happens.”

“Don’t give me that threat again.”

“There’s a reward out for Ella’s return alive, possibly put out by Neville, though the person offering it is sealed information. It’s a big enough reward that people will kill to get to her. If we’re thought to be in the way, we will be killed.”

“She needs someone to come after her!”

“And we’ve sent help. But getting killed means she has no one to return to, Sara. We aren’t going. You aren’t going.”

I shove to my feet and all but climb over Chris. He’s on his feet and I’m pressed against the wall in two seconds flat, his powerful thighs pinning me in place. I shove at his chest. “Let me go. Stop acting like a bully.”

His fingers twine my hair on either side, framing my face. “I will protect you, Sara. It’s a vow I’m taking for the rest of our lives. I won’t let you get killed. I can’t lose you, Sara. I won’t lose you. And think about this: What good do you do her dead?”

My heart is racing a million miles an hour, but my mind is slowing, my emotions calming. “I hate that you’re right. I really, really do.”

Relief registers on his face. “I do, too, baby. I do, too.”

“I’m going to think too much about this. I need out of here. I need to get lost in you and us—”

He kisses me, a deep, hot, claiming kiss before he promises, “I know what you need. Let’s go home.” He takes my hand and starts for the door.

I need what Chris will surely do for me when we are there, the way he’ll take me to the edge where I can’t think. Because I know that my desperation to go to Italy stems from a fear I haven’t wanted to face. I’m not sure she will ever be found. I’m not sure she will ever come home.

Part Nine

Defining Moments

On Christmas Eve, Chris and I walk among the street vendors who have set up for the holiday on the Champs-Élysées, and for the first time in years for either of us, we pick out a Christmas tree and put it up. We even pick out Chris’s wedding ring, and arrange for it to be delivered to our home in San Francisco. I love how excited he is about his choice of a titanium band with an Art Deco design, and even more so about his decision to have it engraved with our names inside. Everything about the evening is romantic, and I’m happy in a way that I didn’t even know I was capable of being.

We decorate our tree, then make love on the rug beside it, where we fall asleep. It’s dawn when Chris carries me to our bed and wraps me in his arms, both of us drifting back into slumber.

I wake on Christmas morning to the smell of cinnamon and coffee, and Chris missing from our bed. Smiling at the certainty that he’s up to something wonderful, I toss aside the blankets and put on my robe. I brush my teeth and tame the wild brown mane on my head as much as possible, then I excitedly go into the closet and dig into my suitcase, where I’ve hidden the gift Chantal helped me secretly order for Chris. I remove the custom-made African-wood box that glistens with shiny perfection. On top, a replica of Chris’s signature is etched into the smooth wood. And inside is the very first paintbrush he ever used, which he has always kept wrapped in plastic in his office.

Eager to give it to him, I rush forward, but on a whim stop again in the bathroom, opening the medicine cabinet. I pull out his cologne, spraying a tiny bit on me. Then, smiling, I hurry down the stairs to the living area, and follow my nose to the loft-style kitchen. Chris is behind the island, his shirtless back to me as I silently pad toward him in my bare feet. I take a moment to admire his broad shoulders, his inked right arm, and the blond hair that’s a little wild and untamed, just like the man.

He turns and his sexy, happy smile echoes what I feel. “Merry Christmas, baby.”

Returning his smile, I finish my walk up the stairs. “Merry Christmas.” I stop on the opposite side of the island and he sets a cup of coffee in front of me. I stuff the box in my robe’s generous pocket and wrap my hands around the mug. “Thank you. What smells so good?”

He opens the oven and pulls out a tray of cinnamon rolls, setting them on the counter. “They just need to be iced.”

“They look like extra hours in the gym.”

“Or in bed,” he suggests, setting a velvet box on the counter in between us. “Open it.”

Hoping this is what I think it is, I quickly pop the top, thrilled to find the engagement ring I’ve only seen on paper before. “It’s gorgeous,” I say, staring down at the diamond encased by a beautifully etched golden rose. My gaze lifts to his. “And so special, because you designed it.”

He rounds the island and stands beside me, removing the dragon ring he also designed from my left ring finger and moving it to my right hand. “Soon,” he whispers, sliding the rose onto my left hand, “you’ll be all mine.”

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