I make it halfway to the exit of the bathroom when Gina rushes
inside, blocking my path. “Oh, no.” She holds up her hand. “You
You can also like this:
aren’t going out there looking like you do. The press will butcher you and Chris. They’re vicious.”
“Move, Gina,” I order. I have never wanted to physically hurt
another person before, but I do now. I want her out of the way. “I have to stop Chris from doing something he’ll regret.”
She fixes me with a determined stare. “You’ll thank me for
this later. Chris called security to have whoever gave you trouble taken to their booth in the back of the museum. We’ll fix your makeup and then you can meet him there.”
“Look in the mirror, Sara.” Her command borders on a bark.
“Think about the kind of attention you will get for Chris and
I draw several heavy breaths and do as she says. And she’s
right. My mascara is streaked down my cheeks, impossible to
miss. I am a front-page nightmare.
She holds up a bag. “My miracle bag. Let me do my magic.”
My fingers trail the puffy skin under my eyes. “No amount
of makeup is going to fix this.”
“I have a miracle gel for that in my bag,” she assures me.
“Let’s get to work.”
I hesitate. I don’t have time for this. I don’t want to do it with her. I don’t even want her involved.
“Let me help. You have time.” She moves to the sink and
sets her bag down. “It’ll take security several minutes to find
whoever Chris wants found and escort him to security with any
level of discretion.”
Slowly, my shoulders slump and I join Gina at the sink.
“Speedy is my middle name when it comes to outsmarting
bad press.” She removes a towelette from her supplies and gently starts wiping my cheeks. “And don’t worry about Chris. He
never does anything he isn’t sure about.”
My gut clenches at the hint of intimacy between them. “You
seem to know him very well.”
Gina applies the cooling gel to my eyes. “Don’t start imagining something that isn’t there. We never dated, and we’d be a
horrible couple. I adore the spotlight and that man acts like it’s poison.” She swallows hard, her delicate neck bobbing with the action. “I … my sister died of cancer.”
Taken aback, I barely manage to spare her the “I’m sorry”
that I know will make her cringe. “How old was she?”
“Sixteen.” She starts to apply foundation to my face with a
roller brush. “She had all the medical care available to her but
she worried that others didn’t.” Her voice cracks. “She volun—
teered until she was too sick to keep it up. That’s how we met
Her words wreak havoc on my calm. Chris will lose everything he’s created with the charity if Michael paints him as some
kind of freak. I can’t let that happen. No matter what that means, or what I have to do.
“I have to go,” I say, and dart around Gina before she can
I ignore her shout and I’m past the other woman guarding
the door before she even knows I’m gone. I dart into the main
events room and head toward the back of the museum, where
Gina said I’d find security. “I’m supposed to meet someone at
security,” I tell the first waiter I find. “Where is it?”
He points to an archway and a set of steps, and I rush toward
them and take the stairs too quickly for my high heels, right—
ing myself from a near trip. Finally, I see the sign indicating the security offices, and any hope I had of catching Chris before he talks to Michael evaporates when I hear his voice.
“I’ll take that number now,” I hear Chris say.
“Dream on, asshole,” Michael responds. “You aren’t getting
shit from me.”
“Have it your way. I can get the number myself.”
Michael snorts. “Good luck with that. Even Sara doesn’t
I hear the phone go to speakerphone and a number being
dialed before Chris is speaking again. “Yeah, Blake. I need a
personal cell number for a Thomas McMillan, and yes, I’m talking about the CEO of the cable company. He’s Sara’s father.”
He’s calling my father? Why is he calling my father? I reach
for the door to stop him, then I hesitate. I know how vicious
Michael is. He’ll say horrible things to me in front of Chris, and Chris will flatten him regardless of later consequences. I bite my lip and lean against the wall, squeezing my eyes shut and waiting for what will happen next.
“Give me about, oh, sixty seconds,” Blake replies, and I can
hear him typing through the speaker. He’ll never be able to get
it. It’s unlisted. I don’t even have the damn number. Blake proves me wrong in less than sixty seconds. It’s more like thirty seconds when he calls out the number “—. Anything else?”
“Not at the moment,” Chris replies. “I’ll be in touch.” The
line goes dead and Chris snorts, imitating Michael. “I guess I’m
Michael barks out a laugh. “Call him. He’ll bury you and
your perverted self under a rock you’ll never climb out from
“Will he now?” Chris asks. “I’m predicting you’ll be the one
buried under a rock.” There is a pause when I assume the phone
is ringing and I hold my breath, waiting to see if my father will
answer. “Thomas McMillan, this is Chris Merit. That’s right. The
artist who is dating Sara.” There is a silence and Chris makes an
amused sound. “Really. That rich. That’s really not all that rich.
Right.” Another pause. “I’m not one to throw around wallet sizes
but you just won’t stop going there so I’ll go with you. Add a
‘filthy’ to the front of that rich, and that’s how rich I am. In other words, your threats to crush me don’t scare me.”
As impossible as it seems, I find myself smiling at the reference to me asking him if he was filthy rich, but it fades and
burns quickly. This is my father Chris is talking to. My father,
who some part of me wanted to believe isn’t a part of this with
Michael but is. It’s clear that he is.
“We’re still comparing wallets? Okay, then. Yes, that’s right.
I make a few million a year for my art, which you make sound
like nothing. Fortunately, the charities I donate it to don’t take it for granted the way you apparently do. You should have had your boy Michael here find out more than my personal habits when he was digging around before you decided to threaten me. My
banker is Rob Moore at Chase Bank in San Francisco. Call him
and he’ll confirm just how much money I have to blow. And
there is nothing I’d like to blow it on more than ruining you and
your pal Michael here, who seems to think ‘no’ means ‘yes’ when
it comes to putting his hands on Sara.” There is a silence when, I assume, my father is talking, then Chris adds, “I really don’t care what you believe happened or didn’t happen. If Michael ever comes near Sara again, I will ruin him and you with him. I’m sending Michael back to you now. And Mr. McMillan, I didn’t understand until tonight why Sara would walk away from her life. Now I do. She doesn’t need you or your money. She has me,
and I’ll take far better care of her than you ever did.”
Frozen against the wall, I hug myself, bleeding and healing at
the same time. My father … Chris … my father … I remember being a little girl eager to see him, hoping he’d come home. But he was never home with us. Home. That word still haunts me.
“Are we done here?” Michael asks.
“You were done before you ever got here,” Chris replies.
“Sorry, sir, but you can’t leave until we finish our paper—
work,” I hear an unfamiliar voice say from inside the room, and
I’m surprised Chris has allowed someone else in the room.
“This is ridiculous,” Michael growls. “I did nothing wrong.”
“It’s protocol, sir. All security action must be properly docu—
My stomach twists in knots just hearing Michael’s voice and
I fight the memories threatening to take shape. Why can’t they
just go back in the hole where I buried them? That place where
two years ago didn’t exist.
Footsteps sound on the opposite side of the door, and I turn
as it opens and Chris appears, his blond hair rumpled, as if he’s
been running his hands through it. His green eyes fall on me and
the hard glint in their depths softens instantly. He pulls the door shut behind him and drags me against him, murmuring softly, “I understand why you left. I understand everything.”
I cling to him, holding on for what feels like dear life. “I
should have told you.”
“You would have.” He pulls back to look at me. “When you
were ready. We all have to deal with our inner demons in our
own way, in our own time.”
My fingers trail over the stubble on his jaw, and I understand
too well what he’s telling me. He hasn’t told me everything,
either, and I can’t bear the idea that there is still something else, some dark secret that could potentially tear us apart when I’m not sure we’ll survive what is already before us.
“Your car’s ready at the back door, sir.” Chris and I turn to
the uniformed guard who has appeared beside us. “The press has
Chris shakes the man’s hand and it’s clear this isn’t their first
meeting. “Thanks, Max. You’re a good man.”
We exit to a parking lot and slide into the car. I settle under
Chris’s arm, seeking the warmth of his body, the protection
I’ve sworn I don’t need, too many times to count. But I need it
tonight. I need it and him, in ways I’ve never needed another
human being. It’s both comforting and terrifying to realize that
the very thing I’ve feared would happen has happened. I don’t
know who I am without Chris anymore. I don’t know where he
begins and where I end. He says he’s mine. He says I’m his, but
no matter what Chris says, he isn’t really mine at all. He’s still a prisoner of his own inner demons and now, I worry, of mine, too.
We don’t speak on the short drive back to the hotel, both of us
lost in thought. The cold reality of what has just happened seeps
into my mind and crawls through my body. Despite it being
eighty degrees outside, I shiver, and Chris runs his hand up my
arm. I turn into him, settling my ear on his chest, listening to
his heartbeat, trying to lose myself in the steady rhythm. But my
thoughts find a way inside the rhythm. My father finds a way
inside my head. I should be beyond his reach, incapable of feeling anything where he is concerned, but I am not. My mother is
dead. My father couldn’t care less if I’m dead. Michael is the son my father wanted and he would justify anything Michael did as necessary, even forcing himself on me.
By the time we are walking through the hotel lobby, I am
one big ball of explosive emotion. I am clawing my way out of
my own head but there seems to be no escape, and this damnable,
pinching pain in my chest won’t go away.
We step inside the elevator and Chris wraps me in his embrace, settling my hips against his, his hand at my back. I run
my fingers through his blond hair, searching his face, and I find
exactly what I fear. He is worried about me, about us, concerned that my past, my weakness with Michael, means I’m too
fragile to be a part of his life. It wasn’t hate I’d worried about from Chris. The hate was mine. I own it. I’ve lived it. No. What I feared from Chris was this: pity. Him looking at me like I’m a wounded animal. I push away from him and try to step out of
his reach. His fingers snag mine and he pulls me back. I see the
question in his face and I plan to answer it, just not here.
The elevator doors open and I rush forward, seeking privacy
before I explode. The instant we are in the room, I whirl on
him. “Don’t look at me like I’m some helpless pup that has to
be coddled, Chris. That’s not what I need now. I need what you
needed today. I need an escape. I need to know …” So much.
Too much. “I need …” I have no more words. I just need.
Stretching behind me, I unzip my dress and shove it down
my body, leaving myself in my thigh-highs and heels, and the
dangling rubies. I’m desperate to push Chris over the edge, to
make him take me the way he always does—passionately, completely.
Chris pulls me hard against his body, and he is hard where
I am soft, strong where I am still weak. Yes. This is what I need.
“Fuck me, Chris. Take me to that place you go and don’t be
He runs his hand down my hair. “Not tonight, Sara. Not
after you just told me that bastard forced himself on you.”
“It was two years ago, Chris.”
“Which you had to relive tonight.”
“Don’t do this. Don’t treat me like I’m breakable, or Michael
“I’m not treating you like you’re breakable.”
“You are, and if you do it now, you always will. It’ll change us.”
“No. One night is not a lifetime.”
“This isn’t just one night. It’s this night. It’s the night that—”
The pain in my chest cuts off my words and I shove it away. “Pain
that is pleasure. Pain that is an escape. I need just what you need tonight.”
“No, baby. I’m not going there with you tonight.”
“You mean you’re not going there with me ever!” I charge.
“You’re afraid to take me there now. This isn’t going to work.
He’s already ruined us.” I shake my head. “I need out of here. I
need to go home.” I tug on my arms, but he holds me easily. “Let
go. Damn it, let go!”
My hands close around the sleeves of his jacket. “I knew this would happen. I knew if I told you, you’d be afraid to be you.”
My cheeks are wet with tears. I don’t know why the hell I keep
crying. “Just let me go, so I can get all the hell over with in one night, Chris. Let me go find my way of dealing with this again.
My way without you.”
He backs me against the desk, his hands on my hips, his
expression unreadable. He’s still so damn in control. I’m naked
inside and out, and he’s no closer to letting down the wall this
night has erected, than when I was fully dressed.
“Just let me go now, Chris.” My voice is a barely audible. I
am defeated and beaten. “Please.”
His expression softens and he wipes my tears away. “Sara,
baby, you aren’t alone. And I’m not going to shut you out.”
“You will. You are. You tried to shut me out today before
you even knew about this. How can I believe you can go those
places you need to go with me when you didn’t even believe
you could earlier today?” My fingers close around his lapels, and
the absolute torment I’m feeling is like gravel in my throat, and
I barely find my voice. “And what if I need to go there now? I
need to escape. I need to feel something other than what I’m
feeling right now, Chris.”
He stares down at me, and I see the shadows in his eyes, I
see the turbulence, a deep sea of emotions I don’t understand,
and I fear we are both drowning. It’s too much. Everything feels
like too much. “Chris,” I whisper, and it’s a plea for him to make this ache inside me go away. A plea for him to take me away like only he can do.
Suddenly, he’s picking me up and carrying me toward the
bed. We go down on the mattress and he quickly shrugs out of
his jacket and tosses it away. And then he’s on top of me. The
weight of him, the sweet wonderful weight of him, is all that
keeps me from completely losing my mind.
He raises up on his elbows and our eyes meet, and I am
lost in the fiery depths of passion this man stirs in me. “Sara.”
He whispers my name and the air around us shifts and I feel
Chris everywhere, in places he isn’t touching me. A shudder
runs through me and I pull his mouth to mine, drinking him in,
burning for him.
Then his lips leave mine, and I physically ache with the loss
of the connection. This man can hurt me so deeply. He could
hurt me in a way I’m not sure I’d recover from, and it’s too late
to stop it from happening.
As he starts to undress, I sit up to watch him. His gaze sweeps
the jewels dangling on my nipples, bringing a welcome heat in
contrast to the icy pit in my stomach. And I think that tonight
just might be a new beginning for us, instead of our final destination.