look at the piece of paper with the hotel name on and step out of the taxi, smoothing down my clothes.
I need to feel confident for this.
I pay the driver and walk into the hotel, through the sleek marble foyer and past a giant art piece of an airline engine, toward the bar. Images from that night in The Bahamas flood my mind as I walk into the dark space. But where the bar at Hotel Atlantica was lit with fairy lights and warmed by the Caribbean sunset, this one is dark with its low lighting, deep green velvet seats and marble-topped tables. It’s sexy and sensual, just the same, but different.
This bar is older, wiser, and not tinged with strong tropical cocktails.
Just like me.
Every tiny hair on my body stands up, my skin tingling.
He’s close. He must be. My body can sense him. As ridiculous as that sounds, it’s the truth. I know his eyes are on me.
I just can’t see him, I can’t—
He’s sitting at the bar.
The second my eyes meet his, my whole body vibrates with anticipation and denied longing. After all these weeks, these past months… it just takes one look, and it’s like no one else in the room exists.
Damn him for still having such an effect on me.
His piercing blue eyes are fixed on mine, stealing the breath from my lungs.
I’ve missed them.
I’ve missed him.
His eyes drop over my body and back up to my face, sending a shiver up my spine.
“I’ve never seen anyone look at someone like he looks at you.”
That’s what Harley said. That he looks at me in a way that makes everyone else around us know we are meant to be together.
I push down the rising flutters in my stomach and walk over to him.
His eyes never leave mine.
Meeting him here, like he asked me to in that final note… it means that whatever happens tonight, I will never forget his crystal eyes. They are a symbol of my future staring back at me.
I just have to decide if it’s a future they’re a part of, or whether they’ll only ever be a memory from now on.
He rises to his feet as I get closer.
I open my mouth, ready to greet him, but words escape me as I struggle to make sense of what is happening.
He’s really here.
He should be in New York.
I stop an arm’s length away from him, and already the heat radiates off his tall, broad body, calling out to mine as he studies me.
It’s been weeks. Months.
But now he’s standing here, looking even better than I remember. His dark hair is softer, his eyes bluer.
Everything about him screams at me to take notice.
To really see him.
He’s wearing a suit, a deep gray one, with a charcoal tie. The pattern catches my eye as he runs his hand down over it. The tiny silver specks are birds. Hundreds of tiny birds flying free.
“You came.” His voice is calm, deep, the perfect mix of breathiness and rasp that makes him sound like sex.
I always loved his voice and the things he said.
I shake the thought from my head as I draw in a slow breath and look at him. The corners of his mouth lift and I stare at his mouth, at his lips, before whipping my eyes up again.
“What are you doing here?” I whisper, the pressure making my throat ache as tears threaten my eyes.
His eyes light up, and then lines appear around their corners as he smiles at me. A smile that is tinged with sadness. I know because it’s just like the one reflected in my bathroom mirror every day.
“What are you doing here?” I ask again, searching his face as the anger I thought I would feel doesn’t come. I’ve been through every emotion since leaving New York. Anger, disbelief, grief.
Now that he’s here, all I feel is relief.
Relief that he’s still in one piece and he’s okay. Everything with Emily will have hit him hard. I know that. I was scared about how he would take it. Scared he would close himself away even more. But he’s here, looking even stronger and more intense than I remember.
It didn’t break him.
I look over his face again—dark brows furrowed as he watches me, soft lips, which whispered so many things to me through all our days and nights. I glance down at his hands, the hands that know every curve of my skin.
Then I look back into his eyes and it’s there again. Poking me in the heart and making me take notice.
Most of all, there is hope.
Because despite everything, I only need to look at him to understand that time apart has done nothing to reduce my pull to him. The lift in my chest when he looks at me. The flutters in my stomach, from the heat of his body being close to mine. The rush of energy flooding my veins from breathing the same air as him. Breathing in something so familiar—tropical air after a storm.
This indescribable urge to be with him, near him, surrounded by him, hasn’t gone away. It hasn’t faded. If anything, it has grown, intensified in its power.
Surely if my instincts are telling me that this is right. That he is right. Then there’s still hope?
“Griffin?” I whisper as the two of us stand, unable to look away from one another.
He clears his throat and parts his soft, skilled lips. Lips that I have kissed a million times.
“I came for you. I was always going to come for you… It will only ever be you.” His eyes shine as he looks at me.
And there, before me, is the inside of the crack that I saw that final day in his office. Only now it isn’t a crack. It’s a giant ravine.
Griffin Parker is standing in front of me with his heart laid bare.
It’s in his eyes.
It’s in his voice.
He looks like the man I last saw, but he’s not. Not exactly. Something about him has changed.
I can sense it.
I hold my breath, my chest burning. His shoulders rise and fall as he waits—waits for me to say something.
I finally take a deep breath.
He holds my gaze, unblinking. “You want to know how Emily is?”
I nod as I slide onto a bar stool. He hovers for a moment, his brow furrowed, then he sits on the stool next to me and runs his hand down over his tie.
“I shouldn’t be surprised that the first thing you do is ask about someone else. Even after everything she did. You’re an amazing woman.”
I gnaw on my lips, dropping my eyes from his.
What do I say to that? How can I possibly answer that?
You think I’m amazing, but you still let me leave? You still couldn’t trust me enough, trust yourself enough, to make me stay?
“She’s doing okay. She’s making progress. At least, that’s what her doctors say.”
I glance at him, brushing my hair over my shoulder as he watches me. “That’s good. I’m glad she’s getting help. Harley said in her letters that she had a lot to talk about with her dad?”
He clears his throat, his eyes fixed on my face as he shifts in his seat, causing our knees to touch. I stare at where we connect and then slowly slide my legs to the side, away from him.
“It was in her letters,” I add, glancing back at him, “the ones she wrote to my nana.”
“I know about the letters.” He signals the bartender, who appears moments later and places two glasses down in front of us.
“Of course you do.”
I lift the glass to my lips and take a sip, more as a distraction than through thirst, despite my mouth being dry. I’ve no idea what it is, but it’s alcoholic enough to send fire blazing a trail down to my stomach.
“I didn’t, to start with.” Griffin leans both elbows onto the bar and turns his face toward me, but not before gifting me a perfect side profile of his dark, brooding looks.
I saw it before, I always knew, it’s so obvious, but it’s like I’m noticing again for the first time just how beautiful he is.
My stomach tightens and I look down into my glass. “You didn’t?”
“No. I had no idea where you were. Harley never told me she had found you. Not in the beginning. I don’t think she wanted me to know. After everything with the police and them questioning you… she didn’t think I deserved to know.”
“Hmm.” I smile as thoughts of Harley standing up to Griffin dance through my head. “What changed her mind?”
He shakes his head. There are faint dark shadows beneath his eyes. But they don’t detract from his beauty.
“I don’t know. I think she took pity on me.” He laughs and takes a gulp of his drink. “I’ve been a shitty person to be around lately, so Reed tells me.” He glances at me and then exhales a long breath. “I think everything with Em and her dad—they’ve been having therapy sessions together—coupled with everything that has been happening at The Songbird, just made her think. Made her want to believe in a miracle. Made her need to have that. Plus, she misses you. Everyone does. They all blame me for you leaving.”
“I did leave because of you.”
His eyes shoot to mine, the blue in them brilliant—alive and crackling, like electricity.
Silence cocoons us for a few seconds, before his eyes pinch at the corners, regret swirling in them.
“I know. And I deserve every shit word you want to hurl my way.”
I search his eyes. There are people around us, but their presence does nothing to dampen the energy passing between us as though we are the only two people here.
It was always like this with him.
When I’m with Griffin, nothing else seems real. The world is a whisper, a faint image fading into the background.
Leaving only us.
He leans closer.
“I deserve all of it. And I will fucking take it, drink it up, fucking live off it like it’s my air for the rest of my days, if it means you’ll be able to look at me for more than a few seconds without turning away. I’ve been in hell since you left.”
He places one hand on my knee, grasping my skin, and spins me on my stool so I am facing him head-on.
“Look at me, Maria. Please.”
I raise my eyes to his and try to ignore the burning that is taking over my throat as he holds my gaze.
His brows flatten over his eyes as he looks deep into me with an intensity that touches my soul.
“I’m sorry. So sorry. Sorry for everything.”
He’s so goddamn beautiful. Like a dagger made of crystal. Deadly and sharp if used against you, but breath-taking and fragile at the same time.
My eyes sting, and I blink, fighting to maintain composure. “It’s not okay. What you did… you broke us. You said you’d never let me go, that you would never leave.”
“I know.” He drops his head and sucks a breath in through his nose. When he looks back up, his eyes are shining. “I know. I fucked up. I’ve never wanted this before. I’ve never met someone who made me feel so out of control before. Until you.”
He takes my hand in his and I gasp as electricity shoots up my arm.
“I promise you I will make it up to you if you come back to me. I will fucking worship you until my dying breath. And I will never doubt you ever again, I swear.”
I swallow hard, darting my eyes from side to side. Our intense conversation is attracting looks from interested guests further along the bar.
“Fuck them,” Griffin hisses. “Look at me, Sweetheart.”
I snap my eyes back to him and yank my hand free.
“You don’t get to call me that anymore.”
His brows pull together, darkening his eyes as he looks between mine.
“Please. Just talk to me. Come upstairs where it’s just us and talk to me. I’ll stay here another week if I have to. Fuck! I’ll stay for eternity until you give me a chance. Please.” He fixes his eyes on mine, the intensity flowing from them as he looks at me as though my answer means everything to him.
Maybe it does.
“Another week? You’ve been here a week already?”
The corner of his lips curl and he nods. “Knowing I was closer to you… I needed it… It felt…” He presses his lips together, his shoulders tensing. “I will do anything for you, you have to know that.”
“I don’t have to know anything. You couldn’t trust me when it mattered. You…”
I am about to say he left me at the police station, but that’s not strictly true now. He posted my bail and did everything he possibly could to get me out of there as fast as possible. He’s the reason I didn’t spend the night in a cell. Something I only found out from those letters.
“You left me when it mattered. Instead of talking to me, you chose to believe I was capable of doing all those things to you, to The Songbird.”
I glance around again. The couple down the bar aren’t even trying to hide the fact they’re leaning closer, abandoning their own conversation to listen to ours. And why wouldn’t they? Front row tickets to our horror show must be entertaining. Like a morbid fascination in watching something you can almost certainly tell is headed for disaster.
“Maria.” Griffin follows my gaze. “Come up to my room. We can talk there.”
I look back at him and nod, allowing him to guide me from my stool and through the lobby to the elevators with his hand resting on my lower back. When we step inside and the doors close, he presses the button with his other hand.
“Are you doing all your work from here? A week is a long time for you to leave. I know you. You hate leaving the hotel for long.”
“The hotel isn’t the most important thing in my life.”
“That’s not true.” My voice comes out quiet, my throat still dry, despite the drink I had moments ago.
The Songbird is his wife. Just like Emily said.
His jaw stiffens, and he holds out an arm, indicating for me to walk out first as the doors slide open. We walk to a large, ornate door and he unlocks it with his key card, holding it open for me. I slip past him, my dress brushing against his shirt.
He catches me, curling one hand around my forearm as I pass, and his warm breath dusts my neck as he dips his head.
“I’ve made mistakes. But I have never lied to you. Not once. When I tell you it’s not the most important thing in my life, I mean it.”
He lets go and I move all the way into the hallway as the door falls shut behind us.
“Just to yourself, then? Not lied to me, but lied to yourself?”
I spin and glare at him. Maybe it’s the drink downstairs, or the freedom to speak with no-one listening, but anger ignites low in my stomach. A fierce flame that is licking at me, drawing up all the pain I’ve felt and pulling it into a mass inside me. A giant, fiery mass so great that I can’t hold it in any longer.
‘Tell me. What is the most important thing in your life? What are you even doing here? You don’t trust me, remember?” I shout, willing the pounding in my chest to stop. To stop and let me rest.
I can’t keep doing this.
He stiffens, closing his eyes, screwing them shut. The anguish pouring from him steals the strength from my legs. They’re weak as my stomach twists into knots.
He may be the one who pushed me away.
But I ran.
I could have stayed until he had read the evidence I found.
We could have had this conversation weeks ago.
I ran, and the scars it slashed into him are shown all over his face, clear as day.
I did that to him.
But I had to.
As much as it destroyed me to leave, I had to.
How can you stay when the man you love looks at you like he doesn’t even know you? When you have never felt more like yourself than when you are with him, but it’s still not enough for him?
I thought I would never see him again, that even after he read the evidence in that envelope, it would be too late.
But now he’s here.
And my head is spinning.
‘I’m here to say I’m sorry!’ He rounds on me, pinning me in place with his eyes as his chest expands and he sucks in a breath, his energy matching mine as he raises his voice. ‘I’m fucking sorry! I want you to know that I’ve spent every miserable fucking day regretting pushing you away, regretting doubting you. I knew deep down that’s not who you are. But I was too fucking self-absorbed to see it! I was too concerned with being lied to again by someone that when I thought it could be you, I shut down, okay? I fucking shut down! Because nothing in this world is worse to me than the idea of you lying to me.” He points at me, his finger shaking, before he drops his arm to his side and curses again. “Nothing is worse. Not Gwen, not Em… not even my own mother could be worse to me.”
“I never lied to you.”
He paces in front of me and rakes his hands through his hair.
“I know. I was a fucking fool, all right? I know that now. I knew it then, too.”
He turns back to me, slamming both hands against the wall on either side of my head and leaning toward me. If I didn’t know him better, it would make me jump.
But it doesn’t.
His passion is one of the first things that drew me to him.
All it does is make me ache for him more.
I used to be on the receiving end of all that passion.
His breath caresses my lips as he leans closer.
“I love you, Maria. You know I do. I love you with everything I have. Everything I am. You’ve seen me. The real me. Fucked up, paranoid, the lot.”
My breath mixes with his and our bodies hover inches apart as we pant, emotion coursing out of every pore into the surrounding air until it’s thick and hard to breathe.
“You’re not fucked up, Griff.”
His eyes hold mine, a wild, haunted depth to them. “I am. I’m the worst kind of fucked up. I let you go. I pushed you away. My lighthouse in a storm.”
He reaches up and ever so slowly traces the back of one hand down the side of my face, his knuckles dusting the curve of my cheek.
I fight from leaning into his touch as his hand moves to my chin and then to my hair, stroking it between his fingers as his eyes follow.
“My lighthouse in a storm. It’s always been you. You’re everything to me. You make me a better man.”
“You don’t need me for that. You are a good man.”
He drops his eyes and his lips curl down into a scowl. “I’m not. I’m far from it.”
“You are! You get your friend the best medical care possible when she needs you, even after everything. You start conservation projects for endangered birds. You build pigeon houses!”
I can’t help smiling as he looks up.
“You built them a house, and you named it.”
“Because it made me feel closer to you. As ridiculous as that sounds, those scrawny little fuckers remind me of you. Remind me of when I saw you every day, and you believed in me. When you trusted me. Before I lost you. When you were still mine.”
The smile falls from my face, and I hold my breath, not trusting myself to speak, remembering the time outside my apartment all those months ago when I accused him of cheating on Emily, thinking it was Griffin I heard next door with all those women, night after night.
“If I was dating someone, she would be everything to me. All mine.”
“Yours?” I whisper.
His hand pauses over my heart where he’s holding a strand of my hair between his fingers.
“Yes, Sweetheart. Mine.”
I stare back at him.
Is that what I want? Of course, I know I want it. But can I handle it?
“What happens next time you don’t trust me? What happens, then?” I shuffle against the wall. I have nowhere to go unless I put my hands on his chest and push him away.
But I don’t trust myself to touch him.
“There will never be a next time. I promise you.” He removes his hand from my hair and draws his arms back, freeing me. “I trust you with my life, Maria. If I’ve learned anything from this, it’s that you are the one person who I do trust. You were there for me even when I didn’t deserve it. After Josanna… with Em… Harley told me you thought about not telling me it was her.”
“I did.” I swallow the lump in my throat. “I hated knowing that she did that to you after all your years of friendship. I know what it’s like to be betrayed by someone who is family.”
“Sweetheart.” Griffin’s voice softens as he looks at me.
“Look, I don’t want to talk about my dad again.” I swipe at my stinging eyes with my fingertips. “This isn’t about him. That’s in the past. I’ve moved on.”
“You learned to trust again?” Griffin’s eyes burn into mine.
“Yes,” I whisper.
“So you know that it’s true when I say I have, too. You know it’s possible.”
“Please!” The crack in his voice makes me freeze. “Please let me prove it to you. Let me earn your trust again.”
“What about the next time something happens that you don’t like, Griff? You put me on a pedestal. You made it so impossible to live up to your standards. You want to control everything. But people being real, being human, is something you can’t control. What if I do something you don’t agree with, then what? You’ll fly off the handle again? Blame me? Tell me not to worry myself as you ‘won’t be lonely’?”
Shame claws at my chest as the words leave my mouth, tearing open my insecurities about what he said. That he wouldn’t be lonely.
That I was replaceable.
His eyes widen and he shakes his head, jabbing his fingers into his chest. ‘Okay, I have lied to you! Because that is a lie! The only lie I’ve ever told you. I will be lonely. Fucking lonely! Because no one can penetrate this bastard heart of mine, except you. No one has even come close. Does that make you feel better? Knowing that you are the only person in the world who makes me cry in the shower?”
Makes him cry?
I open my mouth to speak, but he continues, his eyes wild, his arms flailing in his designer suit jacket.
He’s a man teetering on the edge.
“I used to jerk off in the shower thinking about you.” His eyes drop over my body. “That dress! Your hair, your eyes, your lips… fuck! Everything about you. Your drive, your determination… your fucking brilliant mind! I had to! Just so I could function when you were near me. I used to jerk off every morning picturing you. Imagining you were mine, that you would want me as much as I wanted you.” He inhales sharply. “And now I cry. Does that make you happy? Does that tell you just how fucking lonely I will be if you don’t give me a chance to make it right? You own my thoughts, Maria. You own me.”
He stops, resting his hands on his hips, sucking in deep breaths as his jaw ticks and his eyes reach mine once more.
“Only you, Sweetheart. Always you.”
We stare at each other until his breathing has slowed and my heart has stopped pounding against my ribs. His eyes never leave mine. Never stop holding mine, blazing into mine with an intensity that could burn the world.
“What will you do if I say no?”
“Jesus.” He looks to the ceiling and then scrubs a hand down his face. “Don’t, Sweetheart. Think about it for longer. Take as long as you need. I’ll wait.”
“But if I do say no? What will you do?”
“I’m not leaving without you,” he grits out. He draws in a breath, blinking rapidly as he stares at me. “Fine. I would have no fucking choice… I’d have to open a bird sanctuary.”
“What?” I laugh for the briefest second as his lips twitch. Then he falls serious again and the despair on his face kills the sound in my throat in an instant.
His eyes shine as he looks at me. “I don’t know. Curse myself every day for being such a fool? Wonder what you’re doing? If you’re happy? If you’ve fallen in love? If someone else is treating you better than I did?”
“If someone else is touching me?” I whisper.
He screws his face up and his teeth grind together. “Fuck, yes,” he hisses. “Just know that if anyone ever…” He clenches a fist in the air, a vein bulging in his neck. “If anyone ever hurts you, I will cut them up into so many pieces and burn them so there is no hope of ever putting them back together. You understand?”
My lips part as I breathe. The power in his words is reflected in his eyes.
Those beautiful, blue eyes… so intense, so passionate.
“You understand? I will come for you in a heartbeat. Promise me. Promise me you would call me?”
“No.” I shake my head forcefully, my voice raspy. “No!” I say louder.
“God.” Griffin’s face crumples as he bends at the waist and drops his face into his hands.
“I can’t call you! I can’t live a life without you where I would call you if I needed help. It doesn’t work like that!”
He lifts his head and straightens up. Tears are pooling in his eyes.
I take a step toward him, the strength growing in my voice with each word.
‘If you want to be the man I call, then you need to be the only man I call. The one I call when I can’t get a cab. The one I call when I see something that makes me think of you. The one I call when I just want to hear your voice. The one I call to tell you I miss you, even though I saw you an hour ago. The one I wake up with every day. The one I love with my heart, body, and soul. You have to be that man.”
He looks at me, and the hope in his eyes has me sobbing, giant tears coursing rivers down my cheeks to match the ones shining in his eyes. I said I had already cried enough to make an ocean for him to sail in. Now I see we’ve both cried enough for the other to drown in.
Unless we save each other.
Hold on together and keep one another afloat.
“You have to be that man, Griff. No one else can even come close to being him. If it’s not you, then it’s no-one.”
“It’s me,” he answers immediately, moving toward me. “It’s me. Fuck, Sweetheart, it’s me! I will prove it to you.”
He takes another step forward, his hard, broad body encasing mine, pinning me against the wall as he looks down at me.
“It’s me,” he says again, and then he snakes his hand around the back of my neck and pulls my lips to his, whispering against them.