No talking. No in between. All or nothing, Sara. I’m offering that to you, and you have to decide if you really want it. There’s a reservation in your name with American Airlines. I’ll be on the plane. I hope you will be, too.
Chris had issued that ultimatum and deadline and left me sitting on my missing best friend’s bed, staring at the empty doorway where he’d stood moments before. Emotions explode inside me and twist me into knots. He sought me out, found me here. After our devastating fight last night, he still wants me to go to Paris with him. He wants to find “us” again. But how can he expect me to pick up and leave at a moment’s notice? I can’t just leave—but . . . He’s leaving. I can barely breathe at the idea of losing him and, deep down, I know if I let him leave, I will lose him. We have to talk. We have to work through what happened last night before we leave for Paris.
With a jerky movement I reach for my phone, punching the button to auto-dial Chris. My heart hammers in my chest as I wait for him to answer.
Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring.
Then his voice, deep and raspy in that sexy way, fills the line. It’s his voice mail. My fingers tunnel through my long brown hair and helplessness rolls through me. No. No. No. This is not happening. It can’t happen. It’s too much, after nearly being killed by Ava last night. How can Chris not know this is too much right now? I want to scream at the phone.
I dial again, hear the unbearable ringing tone over and over, and I get his voice mail again. Damn! I’ll have to go try to catch him at home before he leaves for the airport.
I jump to my feet and rush for the door, my hand shaking as I flip the lock closed. I pray that Ella will return safely from her trip to Europe. I’m unable to help comparing her silence to Rebecca’s. I shiver as I step into the dark corridor outside Ella’s apartment, wishing I was in Chris’s arms. Wishing I could forget the hell of Ava killing Rebecca and then trying to kill me.
Once I’m in the parking lot, I glance at the apartment building and my gut twists into knots. “Ella’s okay,” I promise myself as I unlock my silver Ford Focus and slide inside. And it’s clear to me that I have two reasons to go to Paris: Chris and Ella. And they are good ones.
The drive to the apartment I share with Chris is less than fifteen minutes but feels like an eternity. By the time I pull into the drive in front of the fancy high-rise I am one big ball of tension. I hand my keys to the attendant, a new guy I don’t know. “Hold my car here, please.” The very act suggests I’m thinking of going to the airport.
Even if I do, I tell myself, it doesn’t mean I’m getting on the plane. Not yet. Not like this. I’ll convince Chris to delay the trip.
I barely see the lobby as I rush through it and step into the elevator. The doors close and I am suddenly, ridiculously nervous about seeing him. It’s insane. This is Chris. I have no reason to be nervous with him. I love him. I love him as I have never loved another human being. Yet the ride to the twentieth floor is excruciating, and I wish I had asked the attendant if Chris was in the building.
“Please be here,” I whisper as I near my destination. “Please be here.”
The elevator dings and the doors slide open. For a moment, I just stare into the open space of the entrance to our apartment. Our apartment. But will it still be our apartment if I don’t go with him to Paris? Just last week he’d pulled away from me, shut me out over the loss of Dylan, a child stolen by cancer, instead of letting me help him through the pain. He’d made me feel that my “home” with him had been stripped away. He’s sworn that will never happen again, that I would never feel that lost again in the future—but the future is now, and I do.
Lost without him.
“Chris,” I call out, stepping into the foyer, only to be answered by silence. Two steps inside the apartment, and I am as hollow inside as I have ever been. He isn’t here. He’s gone.
I slowly turn to face the sunken living room and floor-to-ceiling windows, where the early dawn is beginning to creep over the city. Memories flood my mind, so many memories of Chris and me in this room, in this apartment. I can smell him, almost taste him. Feel him. I need to feel him.
Flipping on a dim light, my gaze catches on something clinging to the window. A taped note, and my chest tightens as I realize it’s in the exact spot Chris had once fucked me, and made me feel heat and passion and yes, the fear of falling. And fall I had. For him.
I walk down the steps, past the furniture, and tug the note from the window.
Our flight is at nine. You need to be there an hour early to ensure you get through security, and international luggage has a strict cutoff time. It’s a long flight. Dress comfortably. Jacob will be downstairs to drive you at seven to allow for traffic. IF you decide to come.
No “I love you.” No “please come.”
But then, there wouldn’t be. This is Chris, and while I don’t know all of his secrets, I do know him. I know this is one of his tests. I know he needs this to be my decision, not influenced by his words. That’s why he’s not here.
Realization hits me hard: I know this. I know what he is thinking. I know him. The words are comforting. In the ways that matter, I know him.
I turn and look at the clock near the kitchen entry to my left and I swallow hard. It’s almost six now. I have an hour to decide if I’m leaving the country with Chris, and to pack.
I sink to the floor, leaning against the very window I’d leaned on that first night he’d brought me here. I’m exhausted, and I feel just as naked and exposed as I had then.
One hour. I have one hour to make it to the airport if I decide to go. My jeans are dirty from rolling around on the ground while a crazy woman tried to kill me, and my hair feels like a long, dark drape that’s as heavy as my thoughts. I need a shower. I need sleep.
I need to make a decision about what I’m going to do, right now.
* * * * *
Dressed in a soft black velvet sweat suit with a bag over my shoulder, I stare at the gate labeled “DFW/Dallas” and “Paris.” My heart is in my throat.
I’m here. I have a bag on my shoulder. I have a boarding pass. I draw in a labored breath and I think I might be on the verge of hyperventilating, something I’ve done only twice before in my life. Once when I was told a heart attack had killed my mother, and once when I was in Rebecca’s storage unit and the lights went out. Why I’m doing it now, I don’t know. I just feel so damn out of control.
My name is called over the intercom. I have to board.
Somehow, I step forward and raise my hand to let the attendant know I’m here. I hand her my ticket without really seeing her, and my voice is raspy when I reply to questions that I don’t remember two seconds later. I need to get this weird breathing in check before I pass out; I’m definitely hyperventilating. I hate that I’m this weak. When will I finally not be this weak?
My knees wobble as I lift my Louis Vuitton carry-on bag, which Chris bought me when we’d traveled to Napa to meet his godparents, over my shoulder.
I’ve made it to the boarding ramp. I round the corner, and my heart skips a beat. Chris is standing at the door of the plane waiting for me, and he looks deliciously male and so perfectly him in his jeans, navy T-shirt, and biker boots. With one-day stubble and his longish blond hair a wonderful finger-rumpled mess, he is rugged perfection. And everything else fades away but him, and everything in my world is right.
I start running toward him and he meets me halfway, pulling me into his warm, strong arms. His addictive rich, earthy scent invades my senses and I am alive, breathing freely, my feet on solid ground, with no doubt left in me. I belong with Chris.
I wrap my arms around him and press into his hard body. His mouth comes down over mine and the taste of him, spicy and male, overwhelms me in all the right ways.
I am home. I’m home because I’m with him. And I kiss him as if I will never kiss him again, as if I’m dying of thirst and he is all that can quench me. And I believe he is. He has always been the answer to the question of what was missing from my life, even before I met him.
He tears his mouth from mine and I want to pull him back, to taste him just a little longer. I’m breathing hard again, but from emotion and need, and passion.
He brushes my silky, freshly washed hair from my face and stares down at me with earnest green eyes. “Tell me you’re here because you want to be, not because I forced you.”
“You aren’t leaving without me,” I promise him, and I hope he hears everything that means. I haven’t said that he isn’t leaving. I’ve said he isn’t doing it without me.
Instant understanding fills his face, seeping into the depths of his probing stare. “I didn’t want to force you,” he says, his voice gravelly, tormented. This man lives in a tormented state I burn to make go away. He hesitates. “I just needed—”
“I know what you needed,” I whisper, my fingers curling on his jaw. I understand what I should have before now. “You needed to know that I love you enough to do this for you. You needed to know that, before you let me discover whatever you think I’m going to discover in Paris.”
“Mr. Merit, we need you to board now,” a stewardess calls from the doorway.
Neither of us looks at her. We watch each other and I see the emotions playing on Chris’s face, the emotion he lets only me see. And that means everything to me. He wants me to see what he’s never shown anyone else.
“Last chance to back out,” he says softly, and there is a raw, hesitant quality to his voice, a dash of what I think is fear in his eyes. Fear that I will back out?
Yes, I think so, but there is more there, too. He is also afraid I won’t back out, afraid of what he hasn’t revealed yet. And it’s hard not to fear this right along with him, when I’ve seen some pretty dark sides to Chris. What awaits us in Paris? What is it that he thinks will rock me when I discover it?
“I know,” he says sharply, without looking away from me. “It’s time. Sara—”
“Whatever it is,” I say, “I can handle it. We can handle it.” I think of him fighting for my honor with my ex and my father. Chris is giving me what I want by opening the closed doors of his life, his emotions, and I won’t make him sorry. I’ll fight for him and us.
I lace my fingers with his. “Let’s go to Paris.”
* * * * *
On the plane, my hope of some privacy is quickly dashed when we stop at the first row and I discover an elderly woman in a bright purple shirt occupying the aisle seat next to us. She gives me a smile that is as boldly friendly as her tropical shirt, a smile I manage to return, considering I’m a load of emotional baggage, not to mention an uneasy flier.
Chris motions me forward and I sit by the window, while he fits my bag into the overhead bin. I’m spellbound by this man who has become my world. My gaze traces the handsome lines of his face, the broadness of his shoulders, the flex of muscle beneath his snug T-shirt. And just thinking about how deliciously powerful he looks when he’s wearing nothing but the vivid dragon tattoo of reds, yellows, and blues exposed beneath his right sleeve, sends heat dashing through my body. I love that tattoo, and the link it holds to the past I’m now going to fully discover. I love him.
After closing the overhead compartment, Chris murmurs something I can’t hear to our elderly companion, who smiles in reply. I smile watching them interact until I catch a moment of bleakness in Chris’s eyes, reminding me of the pain he hides beneath all his sexy charm. My decision to travel to Paris with him was absolutely the right one. Somehow, some way, I’m going to make that pain go away.
As Chris settles into the seat between me and our companion, I glance at the Band-Aid on his forehead and then at the bandage covering his arm. I knew he’d cut his head last night, but not his arm.
My stomach flutters at how easily he could have died, crashing his bike on the lawn to try to save my life. “How are you?” I ask, gently covering the bandage with my hand.
“The head was more minor than I thought. The arm was a surprise, but a few stitches and it’s fine.” His hand covers mine—big and warm, and wonderful. “And the answer to your question is, I’m perfect. You’re here.”
“Chris.” His name comes out as a silky rasp of pent-up emotion. There is so much unspoken between us, so much tension created from the fight we had before I’d left for Mark’s house, and he’d followed. “I—” Laughter from the row behind us cuts off my words, reminding me of our lack of privacy. “We need to—”
He leans in and kisses me, a soft caress of lips against lips. “Talk. I know. And we will. When we get home, we’ll figure it all out.”
“Baby, I’ve told you.” He laces our fingers together. “What’s mine is yours. We have a home in Paris.”
Of course he has a home in Paris. I just hadn’t given it any thought until now. My gaze drops to where our fingers are twined and I wonder: Will his house there feel like home to me, as well?
Chris touches my chin and I look at him. “We’ll figure everything out when we get there,” he repeats.
I search his face, looking for the confidence in his vow that a man who is always in control would have, and I don’t find what I seek. The shadows in his eyes tell a story of doubt. Chris isn’t certain we’ll figure things out—and because he’s not certain, neither am I.
But he wants us to, and so do I. His words have to be enough for now, but we both know it’s not enough for the future. Not anymore.