“I’ll be there, Christian. I’ll see you tomorrow….” She was so excited now she doubted she’d sleep again.
“Colette, listen,” he said, speaking quickly. “I know I’m throwing this at you out of the blue, but I need to tell you something important. I’m not involved in smuggling. I couldn’t tell you before, but the INS sent me to China. We were cooperating with the Chinese government. I was supposed to make contact with some smugglers. Get evidence.”
“Christian, tell me later. As long as you’re safe…”
“I can’t spend another second having you believe I’m a criminal! Colette, I—”
There was a burst of static on the line, cutting him off.
Colette wanted to scream with frustration. “Repeat that,” she pleaded when he came back on. “I couldn’t hear you.”
“I have to go. I love you, Colette. I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she cried. The connection was completely broken then, but she held the receiver against her ear, letting his parting words settle over her. He loved her.
After a few minutes, she reluctantly hung up the phone and turned to find Elizabeth standing at the top of the stairs.
“Christian’s coming home!” she shouted. “He’s safe!” That was by far the most important news. Christian who’d been lost had now been found, and even better, he’d soon be on a plane and flying home. “He told me he’s working with the INS—”
“I learned that, too,” his great-aunt interrupted.
“I couldn’t get a thing out of them,” she muttered, shaking her head as if to say it was a sad state of affairs when the government didn’t trust her with its business.
“He’s safe,” Colette repeated simply to hear the words again. “He’s safe.”
“I certainly hope he realizes he’s put us both through hell,” Elizabeth said briskly.
“Well, it was hardly his fault,” Colette murmured. Then she smiled, and because it was impossible to hold back the words any longer, she cried, “He loves me.”
Elizabeth sighed impatiently. “I already told you that.”
“I know, but he said it to me himself.” That made all the difference.
The old woman nodded and a slow smile creased her face. She looked more than a little pleased with herself. “Perhaps international intrigue has its uses, after all.” She raised her eyebrows. “An experience like that would make a person appreciate what—or should I say whom—he’s got at home.”
Twenty hours later, Colette and Elizabeth were at Sea-Tac Airport, waiting outside the secure area for Christian and his father to clear customs. Their flight had landed on time and without incident, according to the monitors. Colette should know; she’d checked them often enough.
Colette paced while Elizabeth sat restlessly. “What could be taking them so long?” his great-aunt complained. “I’m an old woman and these seats are a form of torture.”
“He’s with his father, you said.” Colette remembered Elizabeth’s telling her that their relationship had been strained for years.
“I assume so,” Elizabeth said irritably. “How am I supposed to know all this? I assume they’re flying back on the same flight. If so, that’s no guarantee they’re speaking. Both of them are stubborn fools.”
All Colette could do was pray that this misadventure had torn down the walls between father and son. She knew only a little about their history but enough to gather that their estrangement had hurt them both.
People started to emerge from the customs area a few at a time and then finally the door opened and Elliott Dempsey stepped out, followed by his son. Christian looked thin and tired and badly in need of a shave.
Christian immediately searched for Colette. She hurried forward, and the biggest smile she’d ever seen appeared on his face. He held out his arms.
Without a pause, Colette walked into his embrace. For the longest moment all they did was cling to each other. Then he kissed her, his hands cradling her face, his mouth moving over hers. Soon she was crying, her relief overwhelming even her joy. Christian kissed her cheeks, her tears, his unshaven face scraping her skin as they rocked back and forth in each other’s arms.
“Hello, Aunt Elizabeth,” he said after a few minutes, speaking over Colette’s shoulder, still holding her against him.
“Glad to see you, too, young man,” she said with her customary curtness. “I hope you know this nonsense of yours cost me ten years of my life. I’m too old to worry like that.”
“Sorry, Aunt Betty.”
“My name is Elizabeth and you well know it.”
With her arm around Christian’s waist, Colette turned to find Elizabeth glaring at him with tears in her eyes.
Christian released Colette and wrapped his aunt in a fierce embrace, lifting her off the ground.
“Put me down this minute,” she insisted.
“Yes, Aunt Betty.”
“Stop calling me that!”
“Yes, ma’am. Anything else I can do for you?”
Elizabeth glanced at Colette and then back at her great-nephew. “As a matter of fact, you can. Marry this woman.” Her gaze shifted to meet Colette’s. “Soon, if you know what’s good for you.”
“Elizabeth,” Colette chided, flushing with embarrassment.
“I’ll take it under advisement,” Christian said, smiling down at Colette.
Elliott approached them, dragging a small suitcase. Introductions were quickly made, and Colette studied the older man. So this was Christian’s father. Despite his rumpled clothes and unshaven appearance, he had a dignity that impressed her.
Somehow, the news had gotten out to the press, and as soon as they walked into the main part of the terminal, the small group was bombarded with reporters. The flashes from a dozen cameras nearly blinded Colette, who put her hands in front of her face. Questions were fired at Christian, one after another. He answered a few, then authoritatively steered Colette, his aunt and father toward the car that awaited them.
Elizabeth and Elliott sat on one side of the stretch limo; Christian and Colette sat opposite them.
While his great-aunt and father spoke quietly, Christian whispered in her ear. “Come home with me.” His hand gripped hers. “I need you.”
She nodded. She needed him, too.
When the vehicle stopped at his great-aunt’s home, Colette ran in to collect her things. Elizabeth watched her climb back into the car, a disapproving glint in her eyes. “Make sure there’s a ring on your finger before you give him what he wants,” she said loudly enough for Christian to hear.
“Yes, Aunt Betty,” she teased, and when the older woman frowned, Colette gave her a big hug.
During the short drive from his aunt’s house to his father’s, it became apparent that Christian and Elliott’s relationship had come a long way. They spoke to each other with affection and familiarity, laughing more than once. Christian walked his father to the front door and she watched as the two men exchanged first handshakes and then hugs.
Christian was silent when he returned to the vehicle. “I didn’t know if I’d survive this, Colette. All I could think about was getting back to you.” He reached for her hand again, entwining their fingers. “It wasn’t supposed to be dangerous, you know. The government’s occasionally used other businessmen to do this sort of thing in the past. All I had to do was meet with the smugglers—pretend to work with them. A setup, in other words. Then two of them kidnapped me in Beijing and took me to a small rural town in Shanxi province. I still don’t know how they found out. But somehow they were on to me—” He shuddered visibly.
“Tell me the rest later,” Colette said. “The only thing that matters right now is that you’re here.”
They arrived at the house and Christian let them inside. Closing the door, he gathered her in his arms and kissed her until she thought she’d faint with longing and need.
Christian rested his chin on the top of her head. “I’m exhausted. I feel like I could sleep for a month.”
“I know.” Colette nodded. “Go to bed now.”
Christian leaned back, looking directly into her eyes. “Come with me.”
The temptation was as strong as a riptide. But she shook her head, slowly, regretfully. “We have to talk first.”
His disappointment was obvious.
“Sleep,” she suggested, “and when you wake, I’ll be here.”
He seemed about to argue with her. Instead, he murmured “Good night,” and disappeared into a room at the end of the hallway. She checked on him an hour later and discovered he was dead to the world. He lay stretched out on the covers, still wearing his clothes.
Colette opened windows to let in the mild June air and disperse the stuffiness of a house that had been shut up for more than three weeks. She found a can of soup in the kitchen, heated that for dinner and phoned Elizabeth to assure the old woman that her morals were safe.
“You tell him he has to marry you,” Elizabeth insisted.
Colette planned to do no such thing.
She slept in a spare room and woke at about seven the next morning, when she heard Christian rummaging in the kitchen. After dressing, she joined him. “Good morning,” she said cheerfully.
She was glad to see that he looked rested. His hair was damp, he’d shaved and wore black slacks and a teal sweater, which highlighted his blue eyes.
“You must be starved,” she said.
“I am,” he agreed, “but before I do anything—other than have a coffee—I want us to talk.”
Colette hadn’t expected it to happen this soon and she wasn’t ready for it. “Let’s sit down,” she said. He’d made a pot of coffee and carried his mug over to the table. She located tea bags and heated water in his microwave.
“I love you, Colette,” he said, just as she took the chair opposite his.
Her lips trembled as she savored his words. “I love you, too.”
“A lot of things happened before I left for China,” he said. He took her hand in his.
“Who were those men that night?”
She didn’t need to clarify her question. “The evening before I flew into China,” he said, “I met with a group of government agents.”
“Those men were with the government?” Colette remembered the two Asian men and had assumed they were involved with the smuggling. Instead they worked for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
“Just before Christmas, I was approached by some of my contacts—here and in China—about being part of their smuggling operation. They had a system all worked out and wanted to include me. They thought I could manage to get them some sort of cover through my importing business. I went to the INS, who asked me to follow through. Or pretend to, at any rate.”
Colette tightened her fingers around his. “You took a very big risk,” she said in a tearful voice.