My stomach rolls again, and I know he’s right. Tristan is like Mark right now, driven by his own guilt and heartache, seeking revenge. And he wants it badly enough to hurt himself in order to hurt Chris. I just hope this is where it ends.
• • •
Forty-five minutes later, Chris and I have received our groceries and put them away before he drags me to the shower, where I am thoroughly fucked under a hot stream of water and then ordered to dress. In the process, I attempt to convince Chris to call Mark by reasoning that Tristan and Mark are alike, both in too much pain to be reasonable. Chris tunes me out, taking a call from his attorney, so I try to call Mark myself and end up leaving a message.
Shortly thereafter, despite my further protests, we end up headed to The Script to talk to Tristan again, only to find the shop dark with a Closed sign in front. Our next stop is Amber’s apartment, a gray brick building that’s only a few blocks from our house. We arrive at the ground-level unit and pull into the parking garage. The doors close behind us and I can hear rain pattering on the exterior steel casing. Suddenly, it’s like we are in a box and the air is being sucked out.
I turn to Chris, my hand settling on the arm of his black waterproof Polo jacket that matches the red one I’m wearing. “Let’s not do this.”
His hand covers mine as he stares at the door leading into the apartment. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, baby, it’s that what I don’t face now, I face later.” He doesn’t wait for any further objections on my part, opening his door to exit. I quickly follow suit, hugging myself as the cold seeps through my jacket and jeans. But as Chris stares at the door of the apartment, I am certain any chill he feels has nothing to do with the weather.
As seconds tick by—one, two, ten—I can almost taste the tears Chris struggles with deep in his soul. I wait, respecting the vibe that tells me to be with him, but not suffocate him.
He suddenly moves, entering the apartment, and I follow him into the empty laundry area, shutting the door behind me. We enter a connected, small-but-elegant kitchen with beautiful navy blue and teal splashboards complemented by granite counters. To our right is a cutout bar overlooking an empty living room with a large stucco fireplace in one corner.
Chris leans on the counter, palms down, staring at the empty space. His big body is like stone, his expression all hard lines, his jaw a solid line of tension. Everything about him is withdrawn, and I tentatively settle my hand on his back.
For several seconds I feel the unmoving flesh beneath my hand, but slowly, he seems to relax beneath my palm, breaking the silence as he does. “He knew I’d come here, and he made damned sure every trace of her was gone.”
“Yes,” I agree. “That’s exactly what he did.”
He looks at me, shadows in the depths of his green eyes. “It’s not even mine. It’s in Amber’s name. Unless there’s a will that says she left it to me, I can’t keep it. I intended to let him keep it.”
“Maybe she left it to you in a will or a note of some sort.”
He pushes off the counter and runs a hand over his jaw. “I need to see my attorney. I just want to walk the place and make sure nothing is still here.”
I give a nod and he heads out of the kitchen. I decide not to follow, giving him a minute to himself. Leaning on the counter, I scan the living area again, and this time my gaze catches on something taped to the fireplace. Frowning, I round the corner, stepping onto the marble tiled floors and halfway across the room. My hand presses to my belly as I realize it’s a picture.
Stopping in front the fireplace, my hand moves to my throat as I stare at a younger Chris with his arms around Amber, staring down at her. They look happy. His eyes look lighter, with no sign of the ever-present shadows I’ve come to know. And I know that this picture is from before the whip found him, or he found the whip. This was before Amber’s parents were murdered, leaving both him and Amber tormented by the aftermath.
I reach out and touch Chris’s face in the photo, my hand trembling and suddenly, tears burn in my eyes. This was before his need for self-induced pain helped bury the real pain, and its presence here is no accident. Only to Tristan, this photo isn’t about the Chris that once was. It’s about the Amber that once was, and, in Tristan’s eyes, what she later became because of Chris.
Chris’s footsteps sound behind me and I suck in a breath, holding it as he pauses, and I can almost feel the punch to his chest as he sees what I am looking at. Seconds tick by like hours and he doesn’t move or speak, as a whirlwind of emotions churns inside me.
His hands come down on my shoulders and he turns me to face him, but I speak before he can. “He’s being vicious, Chris. He’s using you like you did the whip, as a way to hide from reality. He could have gotten her help. He was with her every day. He was too busy hating you to see how much she needed more than his anger.”
He wraps his fingers around my neck in that familiar, possessive way he does, as if he needs to own me right now, as if he feels like I am somehow slipping away. “He wants you to question me,” he says. “Tristan wants you to doubt who I am and who we are. He knew you’d be with me when I came here, Sara. He knew you’d see the photo.”
I know Chris fears my reaction to what I’ve seen, and my hand goes to his arm. “Then he’d be right. I’m with you, Chris. Here, now, and always. I am with you, right where I’m supposed to be.” I pull the picture off the mantel and slip it into his pocket.