“Where do you want to go?” Mark asks, leaving the car idling.
I don’t look at him. I stare blindly out of the window and give him my apartment address. I don’t care that I have no furniture. Chris has his way of dealing with things and I have mine.
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The idea of returning to Chris’s place, which was supposed to be our place, is unbearable tonight. I’ll face it tomorrow.
“Sara,” Mark says softly and I turn to him. “Are you okay?”
“Not yet. But I’ll find a way to survive. I always do.”
“You don’t need to be alone. I have a spare bedroom and I live a few blocks from here.”
“No. I’m not going to your place. Thank you, but I need to be alone.”
He considers me for a moment and puts the car into drive.
Numbness begins to form within me. I remember this sensation when my mother died. The absolute nothingness of what I felt, and I welcome it, recognizing it as my mind’s way of surviving.
Twenty minutes later, I break the silence and direct Mark to my building. “You can just let me out here.”
“I’m walking you to your door.”
I sigh inwardly. I won’t win this battle and I don’t have a fight left in me anyway.
He parks and we walk to my door. I turn to him. “Thanks for the ride.”
“Let me have your phone.”
I don’t ask him why. I just hand it to him. He punches something into it and returns it to me. “My address is in your contacts. My offer stands indefinitely. If you need me, my door is open.”
I don’t question his motives because I am not in a state of mind to judge much of anything. “I appreciate that.”
He studies me. “I’m waiting on you to go inside safely.”
I dig into my purse and drop my head to the door. “I don’t have my key.”
Mark leans on the door to face me, his jacket unbuttoned, and I’m struck by how proper he is even now. How in control, and I envy that in him. “Come home with me,” he says. “Let me take care of you tonight.”
I lift my head and stare into his silvery gray eyes, and part of me wants just to feed off that control he has, to make it my own.
But no. If Chris knew I’d gone home with Mark, even to stay in a spare bedroom, it would destroy him. Or maybe it wouldn’t.
I choose to believe he loves me enough that it would. “I won’t do that to Chris.”
He studies me a long moment and his expression is as unreadable as ever. “Where to, then?” he asks, pushing off the door.
“To Chris’s—” Realization hits me and I push off the door and dig into my purse, and jackpot. I have Ella’s key. I hold it up.
“My neighbor’s apartment. She’s out of the country.” I motion toward her door and slide the key inside, and thankfully, it opens.
I flip on the light and I turn to Mark. “Thank you again.”
“You’re sure you’re okay here?”
He hesitates. “Call me if you need me.”
I watch him round the corner before I enter Ella’s apartment and shut the door. I lean against it, taking in the fluffy blue couch and oversized chairs to match, remembering wine and pizza and long talks with Ella. She should be home next week, if she plans to teach this semester. No “should” about it. She has to be back home. She has to be all right. Something inside me snaps. I shrug off my purse and start searching for anything that might tell me she is okay. I dig through papers, drawers, cabinets. I find nothing. Not even photos of her and David. Not a mention of him or Paris or a wedding. Nothing.
I end up in her bedroom, and I sink onto the soft white down comforter of Ella’s bed. My mother is dead. My father is an asshole who wouldn’t care if I was dead. Dylan is dead. Ella is lost. Chris is lost. Everyone I dare to love disappears.
I tuck a pillow under my head and curl into myself. Alone is the only safe place to be. Alone hurts so much less.
I told him I can’t do this anymore. I can’t be what he needs me to be. He told me to let him do the thinking. Let him decide what I can be. He then yanked my skirt up and buried himself inside me. Once that man is inside me, I am lost. But maybe that is the problem. I am lost.
I jerk awake out of a dream of one of Rebecca’s journal entries, my gaze sweeping Ella’s small bedroom, the shadow of the deep night hour surrounding me. The sound of pounding jolts me again and I scramble to the end of the bed. Door. Someone’s knocking on the door. Hope flares inside me that it might be Chris.
I rush to the door and start to open it but common sense finds me at the last second. “Who is it?”
I drop my head to the door. Damn it. Damn it. Damn it. Damn it.
“You gonna let me in?” he asks after several seconds.
“How did you know I was here?”
“Mark thought this would be a good place to look for you.”
Of course. Mark told him. Sighing in resignation, I open the door and find him leaning on the jamb, hand over his head, his long dark hair falling haphazardly from the tie at his nape. “Chris sent me looking for you. He’s worried because you’re not at his place.”
“Is he here?”
His lips thin and he shakes his head. “He’s in L.A.”
“Right,” I squeeze out. “What time is it?”
“Two in the morning.”
“I don’t want to go back there tonight.”
“You’re safer there.”
“Right,” I say again. “Because I’m in danger from some unknown someone who might have killed Rebecca. Only we can’t find her, or Ella, or any proof of any of this.”
He studies me, his brown eyes sharp before softening. “Let’s go back to Chris’s, Sara. It’ll give us all peace of mind.”
I consider arguing, but what’s the point? At least Chris cared enough to find out I wasn’t home. At his place, I silently correct myself. Chris made it clear I was to stay there only until the Rebecca mystery was solved. In other words, his place was never my place.
“Fine,” I concede, and I grab my purse and close up Ella’s apartment.
After we get into his car and pull onto the road, I ask, “Where do we stand on Rebecca?”
He fills me in, and when we pull up to Chris’s building, I am comforted and disturbed by how thorough Blake is in his work and how absent Rebecca remains.
The doorman opens the passenger door for me. “Sara,” Blake calls, halting my exit.
“My wife is coming in for the weekend. She works with Walker Security. You could do whatever women do together and talk through things. Maybe you’ll remember something helpful.”
In other words, I’ll have a bodyguard I don’t want. “I’m working. You enjoy being with your wife.” I step out of the car and walk past the night security guard, glad Jacob is gone. I don’t want to see the concern in his expression that might send me back over the edge.
I take the elevator to Chris’s floor and when the doors open to his apartment, I don’t move. Only when the doors start to close do I catch them and enter the apartment. The familiar earthy scent of Chris is everywhere, yet he is nowhere.
I sleep on the couch and wake up to walk through my morning routine like a zombie. I wear a solid black dress with black hose and heels. The safe in the bottom of the closet catches my eye and I sink to my knees and tug on the door. It’s still locked, of course, and I don’t have the combination.
A few minutes later, I stand in the kitchen, unsure what to do with myself, and dare to try to call Chris. Each ring is like a blade stabbing me in the heart until his voice mail sounds. I don’t leave a message this time, either. I dial Brandy and get her husband. The funeral won’t be until next week, because of some kind of research testing. It’s in North Carolina. He’ll have Chris get me the details.
In the lobby, I find Jacob. “I want my car.”
“I want my car, Jacob.”
His eyes narrow sharply. “Mr. Merit—”
“You do know you have to remain cautious.”
“Yes. I’m aware, but I still want my car.”
He gets my car and I settle into the seat, wishing I’d never left the safety of what I knew behind. Everything is broken. I am broken.
I don’t even remember the drive.
The first thing I find when I arrive at work is a white envelope with my name scribbled on it in what I think is Mark’s handwriting. I sit down and tear it open to find my commission due of fifty thousand dollars, signed by Mark. There’s a note attached.
Under the circumstances, I cut the check early. There is peace of mind and freedom of choice to having money in the bank.
After last night, I thought you might need some. If you need to take time off for the funeral, it’s yours.
While I appreciate the money, I can’t help but think of the irony of his words considering how I’d earned the payment. I hold the check to my forehead and relive the wine tasting and the moment Chris had confronted Mark and demanded this commission for me. “I came here tonight to support Sara. I expect her to get the commission off my sales.” When I’d asked him why he’d done it, he’d said it was so Mark wouldn’t gobble me up and destroy me. Then he’d kissed me for the first time, and I was his from that point on. “And I still am,” I whisper, folding it and sticking it in my wallet. The problem is, I don’t think he’s mine.
I don’t think he ever truly was.
It’s a daunting, gut-churning thought that has me sitting at my desk, unable to think of what to do with myself. No. Sitting at Rebecca’s desk. Who am I kidding? This is her life, her world.
I am an intruder who owes her more than stealing her job. It is
this thought that sets me on fire. I shut the door and start digging through everything in her office. Opening books, folders, magazines, and I hit a jackpot. Flat against the shelf, hidden behind other books, is another journal. I pull it out and start to read. A few pages into it, I realize she’s used it to detail an investigation into the fraudulent art she believes Mary has delivered to Riptide. There are notes about Ricco Alvarez evaluating the pieces. I do a quick specific Google search of Ricco Alvarez and discover he’s considered an authentication expert in certain types of art. There are no indications in Rebecca’s notes of him looking at the art in question.
I dial Ricco. He answers immediately. “Bella—”
“Meet me at the coffee shop.”
Adrenaline rushes through me like wildfire and I flip through the records Mark gave me for Riptide to find the pieces Rebecca has listed in her notes. They sold right after she left, or rather, disappeared. I shift from the paper reports to my computer and print details on those pieces and the new ones Mary has listed for the next auction. I slip them into my briefcase, snatch my purse and coat, and, already standing, I dial Mark’s office. He doesn’t answer.
Heading to the hallway, I pause by Amanda’s desk. “I’m meeting a client next door. Is Mark in the gallery?”
“No. He won’t be in until after lunch but he told me to tell you he canceled your meeting with Ryan for tonight. He thought you might want to choose the date to reschedule.”
I hate how appreciative I am of this news. I have dreamed of this job, this life that has now become a little piece of hell.
Mary appears at the opposite side of Amanda’s desk. My cheeks heat with the certainty she is somehow involved in Rebecca’s disappearance. “Call me if Mark gets in before I get back, please,” I say to Amanda, and rush to the door, eager to talk to Ricco.
Entering Ava’s shop, I inhale the scent of coffee and sweets and manage an awkward wave in her direction. Ricco is already here, and I settle at the table across from him, trying not to look at the table Chris always sits at. But I do. I look as if he will magi-cally appear, and I swallow the emotions his absence stirs.
“Did you locate a number for Rebecca?” Ricco inquires urgently.
“No. Sorry. But I am following up on something she was working on. Did she ask you about a couple of counterfeit paintings?” I pull out my folder and show them to Ricco. “Did you look at these for her?”
“Oh yes. I remember Rebecca mentioning her concern but nothing beyond a verbal inquiry. She never got me what I needed to evaluate the work.”
“What exactly would you need?”
“I can begin with digital photos but ideally I’ll want to examine the actual work.”
“How much per item?”
“I don’t charge. I feel it decreases my credibility.”
I slide the folder over to him. “I have details for each work and digital photos. Two of the four pieces are in the Allure Gallery. Two are not. Please. Will you look into them for me?”
“This is related to Rebecca’s worries?”
“Do you think it has something to do with why she disappeared?”
Disappeared. The word hangs in the air and I remind myself to be cautious. Have I just made a mistake? Could he be involved with Mary? “Doubtful,” I reply. “I don’t think she went very far with this.”
His eyes narrow and his answer comes slowly. “Very well,
Bella. I’ll look into it.” He scoops up the folder. “Shall I walk you to the gallery?”
“No. Thank you. I’ll stay a bit.”
I watch him leave and consider calling Mark, but hesitate.
Not for the first time, I wonder if Mark could be involved.
The first two pieces Rebecca questioned sold for large sums of money. I dial Blake instead.
I tell him what I have discovered and hear only silence on the other end before he says, “You do know I am a former ATF, and art theft and counterfeiting operations is one of our specialties, correct?”
“I didn’t really put that together in a two-and-two kind of way.”
“Well, now I’ve done it for you and yes, I believe there is something going on and I am dealing with it. You, however, are not supposed to be asking questions. I repeat, we are aware of the situation and PS: I’m handling Ricco Alvarez.”
“Is Mark involved?”
“Mark Compton is a lot of things, but as far as I can tell a thief isn’t one of them. I’m not prepared to rule out all possibilities quite yet, though.”
“Do you … do you think Rebecca got close to this and someone …”
“I have nothing to connect her disappearance to the art scam but it’s a logical link. In other words, stay out of this. If I had my way I’d put you on a plane to L.A. to be with Chris.”
If I had my way, I’d be on a plane to be with Chris, too. I end the call and dial Chris again. He doesn’t answer. I clutch my phone and wonder what kind of clubs they have in Los Angeles.
I wonder what he will do to hide from his pain and I wonder who he will do it with. I dial Brandy and get her husband, only to learn that she’s highly sedated and a mess. I hang up and certainty fills me. Unless Chris invites me he will be upset that I show up and Brandy will be upset because he’s upset. It’s clear that the life I’d convinced myself was mine never was. I can’t even properly grieve a brave young boy without feeling like an intruder.
Defeated, I gather my things and start for the door but draw up short when Ryan and Mark walk in. The two of them together are pure testosterone in their perfectly fitted suits, and complete contrasts with their dark and light hair. The masculine beauty they ooze is almost a crime, and downright blinding to us normal humans.
“Hey, sweetheart,” Ryan says to me, and gives me a once-over that is thorough and somehow manages not to be obnoxious. “You look gorgeous.”
His natural charm pulls a small smile from me. I think it’s the warmth in his brown eyes, so unlike the hard glint permanently etched in Mark’s. “Thanks, Ryan, but I know I’m far from it today.”
“Is the black dress an indicator you are flying out to L.A.?” Mark inquires.
“No. As of now, I’m not going.” It hits me that Ava will tell Mark I was with Ricco. “I came over here to meet with Ricco again, but it’s still a no-go for his business. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.”
“Yes,” Mark agrees wryly. “I do believe you are.”
Inwardly, I bristle at his reference to Chris, and I’m fighting a snippy “he’s my kind of punishment” when the door chimes behind us. Avoiding incoming bodies, Ryan steps closer to me at the same time Mark does. I end up smashed against Mark, staring up into his piercing gray eyes. My pulse skyrockets and I step backward. “I should get back to the gallery.”
Mark’s lips quirk. “I don’t bite, Ms. McMillan.”
“Somehow, I doubt that’s true.” It’s out before I can stop it.
Mark arches an arrogant brow and Ryan laughs good naturedly. “Oh yes. I do love a woman with some bite of her own. But before you run off to the gallery, Sara, the art you ordered for the demo unit came in. If you come back to the property with me, you can help direct the maintenance team to place it where you want it.”
I cast Mark a questioning look. He motions me onward.
“Go. See the art you loved enough to buy and make us all money by completing the deal. It’ll make you feel better. I know it will make me feel better.”
The only thing that is going to make me feel better is hearing from Chris. “Then I guess I’m going to the property. Should I follow you, Ryan?”
“Sure.” His hand settles casually on my shoulder, a bold touch when he barely knows me, but he’s a friendly guy. “Let me just get some coffee for the road. You want some?”
“More caffeine is always on my to-do list,” I joke, then turn to head to the counter only to find that Ava is no longer here. It strikes me as odd, albeit for no identifiable reason. Even odder, it’s an impression that I don’t shake until I’m at Ryan’s property, directly over the ocean, inside the elegant apartment with a wall of windows much like those at Chris’s apartment. I walk over to the white marble fireplace, which contrasts with the deep mahogany floors, and stare at the blank wall above it.
I intended the wall to hold a Chris Merit original. It’s as empty as I am.