Chapter 19

When I got to my desk, I found a voice mail from Christopher. I debated for a moment whether I should continue to pursue the truth. Christopher wasn’t a man I wanted to invite any deeper into my life.

But I was haunted by the look that had been on Gideon’s face when he told me about his past, and the sound of his voice, so hoarse with remembered shame and agony.

I felt his pain like my own.

In the end, there was no other choice. I returned Christopher’s call and asked him out to lunch.

“Lunch with a beautiful woman?” There was a smile in his voice. “Absolutely.”

“Any time you have free this week would be great.”

“How about today?” he suggested. “I occasionally get a craving for that deli you took me to.”

“Works for me. Noon?”

We set the time and I hung up just as Will stopped by my cubicle. He gave me puppy-dog eyes and said, “Help.”

I managed a smile. “Sure.”

The two hours flew by. When noon rolled around, I went downstairs and found Christopher waiting in the lobby. His auburn hair was a wild mess of short, loose waves and his grayish-green eyes sparkled. Wearing black slacks and a white dress shirt rolled up at the sleeves, he looked confident and attractive. He greeted me with his boyish grin, and it struck me then-I couldn’t ask him about what he’d said to his mother long ago. He’d been a child himself, living in a dysfunctional home.

“I’m stoked you called me,” he said. “But I have to admit, I’m curious about why. I’m wondering if it has anything to do with Gideon getting back together with Corinne.”

That hurt. Terribly. I had to suck in a deep breath, then release my tension with it. I knew better. I had no doubts. But I was honest enough to admit that I wanted ownership of Gideon. I wanted to claim him, possess him, have everyone know that he was mine.

“Why do you hate him so much?” I asked, preceding him through the revolving doors. Thunder rumbled in the distance, but the hot, driving rain had ceased, leaving the streets awash in dirty water.

He joined me on the sidewalk and set his hand at the small of my back. It sent a shiver of revulsion through me. “Why? You want to exchange notes?”

“Sure. Why not?”

By the time lunch was over, I’d gotten a pretty good idea of what fueled Christopher’s hatred. All he cared about was the man he saw in the mirror. Gideon was more handsome, richer, more powerful, more confident… just more. And Christopher was obviously being eaten alive by jealousy. His memories of Gideon were colored by the belief that Gideon had received all the attention as a child. Which might have been true, considering how troubled he was. Worse, the sibling rivalry had crossed over into their professional lives when Cross Industries acquired majority shares in Vidal Records. I made a mental note to ask Gideon why he’d done that.

We stopped outside the Crossfire to part ways. A taxi racing through a huge puddle sent a plume of foaming water right at me. Swearing under my breath, I dodged the spray and almost stumbled into Christopher.

“I’d like to take you out sometime, Eva. Dinner, perhaps?”

“I’ll get in touch,” I hedged. “My roommate’s really sick right now and I need to be around for him as much as possible.”

“You’ve got my number.” He smiled and kissed the back of my hand, a gesture I’m sure he thought was charming. “And I’ll keep in touch.”

I made my way through the Crossfire’s revolving doors and headed for the turnstiles.

One of the black-suited security guards at the desk stopped me. “Miss Tramell.” He smiled. “Could you come with me, please?”

Curious, I followed him to the security office where I’d originally gotten my employee badge when I was hired. He opened the door for me, and Gideon was waiting inside.

Leaning back against the desk with his arms crossed, he looked beautiful and fuckable and wryly amused. The door shut behind me and he sighed, shaking his head.

“Are there other people in my life you plan on harassing on my behalf?” he asked.

“Are you spying on me again?”

“Keeping a protective eye on you.”

I arched a brow at him. “And how do you know if I harassed him or not?”

His faint smile widened. “Because I know you.”

“Well, I didn’t harass him. Really. I didn’t,” I argued when he shot me a look of disbelief. “I was going to, but then I didn’t. And why are we in this room?”

“Are you on some kind of crusade, angel?”

We were talking around each other, and I wasn’t sure why. And I didn’t care, because something else struck me as more significant.

“Do you realize that your reaction to my lunch with Christopher is very calm? And so is my reaction to your spending time with Corinne? We’re both reacting totally different from the way we would have just a month ago.”

He was different. He smiled, and there was something unique about that warm curving of his lips. “We trust each other, Eva. It feels good, doesn’t it?”

“Trusting you doesn’t mean I’m any less baffled by what’s going on between us. Why are we hiding in this office?”

“Plausible deniability.” Gideon straightened and came to me. Cupping my face in his hands, he tilted my head back and kissed me sweetly. “I love you.”

“You’re getting good at saying that.”

He ran his fingers through my new bangs. “Remember that night, when you had your nightmare and I was out late? You wondered where I was.”

“I still wonder.”

“I was at the hotel, clearing out that room. My fuck pad, as you called it. Explaining that while you were puking your guts out didn’t seem to be the appropriate time.”

My breath left me in a rush. It was a relief to know where he’d been. An even bigger relief to know that the fuck pad was no more.

His gaze was soft as he looked at me. “I’d completely forgotten about it until it came up with Dr. Petersen. We both know I’ll never use it again. My girl prefers modes of transportation to beds.”

He smiled and walked out. I stared after him.

The security guard filled the open doorway and I shoved aside my roiling thoughts to examine later, when I had the time to really grasp where they were leading me.

* * *

On the walk home, I picked up a bottle of sparkling apple juice in lieu of champagne. I saw the Bentley every now and then, following along, ever ready to pull over and pick me up. It used to irritate me, because the lingering connection it represented deepened my confusion over my breakup with Gideon. Now, the sight of it made me smile.

Dr. Petersen had been right. Abstinence and some space had cleared my head. Somehow, the distance between me and Gideon had made us stronger, made us appreciate each other more and take less for granted. I loved him more now than I ever had, and I felt that way while I was planning on a night just hanging out with my roommate, having no idea where Gideon was or who he might be with. It didn’t matter. I knew I was in his thoughts, in his heart.

My phone rang and I pulled it out of my purse. Seeing my mother’s name on the screen, I answered with, “Hi, Mom.”

“I don’t understand what they’re looking for!” she complained, sounding angry and tearful. “They won’t leave Richard alone. They went to his offices today and took copies of the security tapes.”

“The detectives?”

“Yes. They’re relentless. What do they want?”

I turned the corner to reach my street. “To catch a killer. They probably just want to see Nathan coming and going. Check the timing or something.”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“Yeah, it’s also just a guess. Don’t worry. There’s nothing to find because Stanton’s innocent. Everything will be okay.”

“He’s been so good about this, Eva,” she said softly. “He’s so good to me.”

I sighed, hearing the pleading note in her voice. “I know, Mom. I get it. Dad gets it. You’re where you should be. No one’s judging you. We’re all good.”

It took me until I reached my front door to calm her down, during which time I wondered what the detectives would see if they pulled the Crossfire security tapes, too. The history of my relationship with Gideon could be chronicled through the times I’d been in the Cross Industries vestibule with him. He’d first propositioned me there, bluntly stating his desire. He’d pinned me to the wall there, right after I’d agreed to date him exclusively. And he’d rejected my touch that horrible day when he had first started pulling away from me. The detectives would see it all if they looked back far enough, those private and personal moments in time.

“Call me if you need me,” I said as I dropped my bag and purse off at the breakfast bar. “I’ll be home all night.”

We hung up, and I noticed an unfamiliar trench coat slung over one of the bar stools. I shouted out to Cary, “Honey, I’m home!”

I put the bottle of apple juice in the fridge and headed down the hallway to my bedroom for a shower. I was on the threshold of my room when Cary’s door opened and Tatiana came out. My eyes widened at the sight of her naughty nurse costume, complete with exposed garters and fishnets.

“Hey, honey,” she said, looking smug. She was astonishingly tall in her heels, towering over me. A successful model, Tatiana Cherlin had the kind of face and body that could stop traffic. “Take care of him for me.”

Blinking, I watched the leggy blonde disappear into the living room. I heard the front door shut a short time later.

Cary appeared in his doorway, looking mussed and flushed and wearing only his boxer briefs. He leaned into the doorway with a lazy, satisfied grin. “Hey.”

“Hey, yourself. Looks like you had a good day.”

“Hell yeah.”

That made me smile. “No judgment here, but I assumed you and Tatiana were done.”

“I never thought we got started.” He ran a hand through his hair, ruffling it. “Then she showed up today all worried and apologetic. She’s been in Prague and didn’t hear about me until this morning. She rushed over wearing that, like she read my perverted mind.”

I leaned into my doorway, too. “Guess she knows you.”

“Guess she does.” He shrugged. “We’ll see how it goes. She knows Trey’s in my life and I hope to keep him there. Trey, though… I know he won’t like it.”

I felt for both men. It was going to take a lot of compromising for their relationship to work out. “How about we forget about our significant others for a night and have an action movie marathon? I brought some nonalcoholic champagne home.”

His brows rose. “Where’s the fun in that?”

“Can’t mix your meds with booze, you know,” I said dryly.

“No Krav Maga for you tonight?”

“I’ll make it up tomorrow. I feel like chilling with you. I want to sprawl on the couch, and eat pizza with chopsticks and Chinese food with my fingers.”

“You’re a rebel, baby girl.” He grinned. “And you’ve got yourself a date.”

* * *

Parker hit the mat with a grunt and I shouted, thrilled with my own success.

“Yes,” I said with a fist pump. Learning to toss a guy as heavy as Parker was no small feat. Finding the right balance to gain the leverage I needed had taken me longer than it probably should have because I’d had such a hard time concentrating over the last couple of weeks.

There was no balance in my life when my relationship with Gideon was skewed.

Laughing, Parker reached out to me for a hand up. I gripped his forearm and tugged him to his feet.

“Good. Very good,” he praised. “You’re firing on all cylinders tonight.”

“Thanks. Wanna try it again?”

“Take a ten-minute break and hydrate,” he said. “I need to talk to Jeremy before he takes off.”

Jeremy was one of Parker’s co-instructors, a giant of a man that the students had to work their way up to. Right then, I couldn’t imagine ever being able to fend off an assailant of his size, but I’d seen some really petite women in the class do it.

I grabbed my towel and my water and headed toward the aluminum bleachers lined up against the wall. My steps faltered when I saw one of the detectives who’d come to my apartment. Detective Shelley Graves wasn’t dressed for work, though. She wore a sports top and matching pants with athletic shoes, and her dark, curly hair was pulled back in a ponytail.

Since she was just entering the building and the door happened to be next to the bleachers, I found myself walking toward her. I forced myself to look nonchalant when I felt anything but.

“Miss Tramell,” she greeted me. “Fancy running into you here. Have you been working with Parker long?”

“About a month. It’s good to see you, Detective.”

“No, it’s not.” Her mouth twisted wryly. “At least you don’t think so. Yet. Maybe you still won’t when we’re done chatting.”

I frowned, confused by that tangle of words. Still, one thing was clear. “I can’t speak to you without my attorney present.”

She spread her arms wide. “I’m off-duty. But anyway, you don’t have to say anything. I’ll do all the talking.”

Graves gestured toward the bleachers, and I reluctantly took a seat. I had damn good reason to be wary.

“How about we move a little higher?” She climbed to the top, and I stood and followed.

Once we were settled, she set her forearms on her knees and looked at the students below. “It’s different here at night. I usually catch the day sessions. I told myself that on the off chance I happened to run into you off-duty someday, I’d talk to you. I figured the chances of that were nil. And lo and behold, here you are. It must be a sign.”

I wasn’t buying the additional explanation. “You don’t strike me as the type to believe in signs.”

“You’ve got me there, but I’ll make an exception in this case.” Her lips pursed for a moment, as if she were thinking hard about something. Then she looked at me. “I think your boyfriend killed Nathan Barker.”

I stiffened, my breath catching audibly.

“I’ll never be able to prove it,” she said grimly. “He’s too smart. Too thorough. The whole thing was precisely premeditated. The moment Gideon Cross came to the decision to kill Nathan Barker, he had his ducks in a row.”

I couldn’t decide if I should stay or go-what the ramifications would be of either decision. And in that moment of indecisiveness, she kept talking.

“I believe it started the Monday after your roommate was attacked. When we searched the hotel room where Barker’s body was discovered, we found photos. A lot of photos of you, but the ones I’m talking about were of your roommate.”

“Cary?”

“If I were to present this to the ADA for an arrest warrant, I would say that Nathan Barker attacked Cary Taylor as a way to intimidate and threaten Gideon Cross. My guess is that Cross wasn’t conceding to Barker’s blackmail demands.”

My hands twisted in my towel. I couldn’t stand the thought of Cary suffering what he had because of me.

Graves looked at me, her gaze sharp and flat. Cop’s eyes. My dad had them, too. “At that point, I think Cross perceived you to be in mortal danger. And you know what? He was right. I’ve seen the evidence we collected from Barker’s room-photos, detailed notes of your daily schedule, news clippings… even some of your garbage. Usually when we find that sort of thing, it’s too late.”

“Nathan was watching me?” Just the thought sent a violent shiver through me.

“He was stalking you. The blackmail demands he made on your stepfather and Cross were just an escalation of that. I think Cross was getting too close to you, and Barker felt threatened by your relationship. I think he hoped Cross would step away if he knew about your past.”

I held the towel to my mouth, in case I became as sick as I felt.

“So here’s how I think it went down.” Graves tapped her fingertips together, her attention seemingly on the strenuous drills below. “Cross cut you off, started seeing an old flame. That served two purposes-it made Barker relax, and it wiped out Cross’s motive. Why would he kill a man over a woman he’d dumped? He set that up pretty well-he didn’t tell you. You strengthened the lie with your honest reactions.”

Her foot started tapping along with her fingers, her slim body radiating restless energy. “Cross doesn’t hire out the job. That would be stupid. He doesn’t want the money trail or a hit man who could rat him out. Besides, this is personal. You’re personal. He wants the threat gone without a doubt. He sets up a last-minute party at one of his properties for some vodka company of his. Now he’s got a rock-solid alibi. Even the press is there to snap pictures. And he knows precisely where you are and that your alibi is rock-solid, too.”

My fingers clenched in the towel. My God…

The sounds of bodies hitting the mat, the hum of instructions being given, and the triumphant shouts of students all faded into a steady buzzing in my ears. There was a flurry of activity happening right in front of me and my brain couldn’t process it. I had a sense of retreating down an endless tunnel, my reality shrinking to a tiny black point.

Opening her bottle of water, Graves drank deeply, then wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “I’ll admit, the party tripped me up a bit. How do you break an alibi like that? I had to go back to the hotel three times before I learned there was a fire in the kitchen that night. Nothing major, but the entire hotel was evacuated for close to an hour. All the guests were milling on the sidewalk. Cross was in and out of the hotel doing whatever an owner would do under those circumstances. I talked to a half dozen employees who saw him or talked to him around then, but none of them could pinpoint times for me. All agreed it was chaotic. Who could keep track of one guy in that mess?”

I felt myself shaking my head, as if she’d been directing the question at me.

She rolled her shoulders back. “I timed the walk from the service entrance-where Cross was seen talking to the FDNY-to Barker’s hotel a couple blocks over. Fifteen minutes each way. Barker was taken out by a single stab wound to the chest. Right in the heart. Would’ve taken no more than a minute. No defensive wounds and he was found just inside the door. My guess? He opened the door to Cross and it was over before he could blink. And get this… That hotel is owned by a subsidiary of Cross Industries. And the security cameras in the building just happened to be down for an upgrade that’s been in the works for several months.”

“Coincidence,” I said hoarsely. My heart was pounding. In a distant part of my brain, I registered that there were a dozen people just a few feet away, going about their lives without a clue that another human being in the room was dealing with a catastrophic event.

“Sure. Why not?” Graves shrugged, but her eyes gave her away. She knew. She couldn’t prove it, but she knew. “So here’s the thing: I could keep digging and spending time on this case while there are others on my desk. But what’s the point? Cross isn’t a danger to the public. My partner will tell you it’s never okay to take the law into your own hands. And for the most part, I’m on the same page. But Nathan Barker was going to kill you. Maybe not next week. Maybe not next year. But someday.”

She stood and brushed off her pants, picked up her water and towel, and ignored the fact that I was sobbing uncontrollably.

Gideon… I pressed the towel to my face, overwhelmed.

“I burned my notes,” she went on. “My partner agrees we’ve hit a dead end. No one gives a shit that Nathan Barker isn’t breathing our air anymore. Even his father told me he considered his son dead years ago.”

I looked up at her, blinked to clear the haze of tears from my eyes. “I don’t know what to say.”

“You broke up with him on the Saturday after we interrupted your dinner, didn’t you?” She nodded when I did. “He was in the station then, giving a statement. He stepped out of the room, but I could see him through the window in the door. The only time I’ve seen pain like that is when I’m notifying next of kin. To be honest, that’s why I’m telling you this now-so you can go back to him.”

“Thank you.” I’d never put as much feeling into those two words as I did then.

Shaking her head, she started to walk back down the stairs, then stopped and turned, looking up at me. “I’m not the one you should be thanking.”

* * *

Somehow, I ended up at Gideon’s apartment.

I don’t remember leaving Parker’s studio or telling Clancy where to take me. I don’t remember checking in with the front desk or riding the elevator up. When I found myself in the private foyer facing Gideon’s door, I had to stop a moment, unsure of how I’d gotten from the bleachers to that point.

I rang the bell and waited. When no one answered, I sank to the floor and leaned back against the door.

Gideon found me there. The elevator doors opened and he stepped out, stopping abruptly when he saw me. He was dressed in workout clothes and his hair was still damp with sweat. He’d never looked more wonderful.

He was staring at me, unmoving, so I explained, “I don’t have a key anymore.”

I didn’t get up because I wasn’t sure my legs would support me.

He crouched. “Eva? What’s wrong?”

“I ran into Detective Graves tonight.” I swallowed past the knot in my throat. “They’re dropping the case.”

His chest expanded on a deep breath.

With that sound, I knew.

Dark desolation shadowed Gideon’s beautiful eyes. He knew that I knew. The truth hung heavy in the air between us, a near-tangible thing.

I’d kill for you, give up everything I own for you… but I won’t give you up.

Gideon fell to his knees on the cold, hard marble. His head bowed. Waiting.

I shifted, mirroring his kneeling pose. I lifted his chin. Touched his face with my hands and my lips. My gratitude for his gift whispered over his skin: Thank you… thank you… thank you.

He caught me to him, his arms banded tight around me. His face pressed into my throat. “Where do we go from here?”

I held him. “Wherever this takes us. Together.”

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