As sore as they both were the next day, that first night broke a dam. The two were almost like teenagers, having sex constantly. Nick wasn’t trying to test her boundaries yet, simply showing her pleasure she deserved to experience. It seemed as if she were now determined to make up for lost time, too. She had even taken to wandering around sometimes in nothing more than a longish shirt that hid very little when she moved. On his side, Nick didn’t need much encouragement.
It was almost a week later when Nick realized that Selene was not on birth control. While it caused him a moment of panic, it didn’t take long to get her into an obgyn to address it. He felt like an ass for not realizing it, but while he stood next to her while the doctor examined her, he could see her belly full and rounded. The idea turned him on quite a bit more than he would have thought possible. Right then and there, he knew beyond a doubt that Selene was it. Not once in his life before had the idea of a woman pregnant by him had caused anything but fear.
After having taken her history, including the sexual abuse, the doctor had Selene put on a gown and lay on the dreaded table. Selene had asked Nick to stay with her, so he helped her and folded her clothes up and placing them on a chair. Soon, the examination was underway.
“You have a lot of scar tissue,” the doctor commented. “It’s probably a good idea for you to take birth control and stay on it. When you’re ready to have a child, we’ll need to do additional examinations,” she told them, looking at Selene.
Selene squeezed Nick’s hand and nodded once.
The doctor gave her an empathic smile. “Don’t worry, though, everything else looks fine. I’ll give you a call when the results come back. I’ll send a script over to whatever pharmacy you want. Do you have any questions,” she asked after carefully covering Selene and stepping back.
“Is there anything we need to worry about with the scar tissue,” Nick asked, helping Selene to sit back up.
“Honestly, it shouldn’t be a problem for most things. The issue is that it may prevent her vaginal walls stretch appropriately to give birth. It’s fairly extensive, so it could pose a risk. That is really my only concern at this point.”
“So, I can’t have kids?”
The doctor shook her head. “You probably can just fine. You just might need to plan for a cesearian section is all. So, it will probably be something you’ll want to plan ahead for so we can ensure things go as smoothly as possible. I can start scheduling you for the tests now, if you’d like to ease your mind,” she suggested.
Selene looked at Nick, then chewed her lip in thought. “Well, I’m not planning on it soon, but I think I’d like to know if there’s something wrong now.”
“I’ll start the referrals, then,” the doctor said, making a couple of notes on the computer. “I’ll send the prescription over right after you leave, so it should be available sometime today.”
After they’d left the office and gotten into the car, Nick looked at Selene to see a worried expression on her face. “Talk to me, sweetheart. What’s on your mind?”
“What if I can’t have kids, Nick?” She looked at him, eyes watery.
Nick reached over and brushed the side of her facr. “I want you no matter what, Selene. Kids or no kids. Besides, there are always other options if we decide we want any. There are surrogates, adoption… and to me, I’d rather have you without kids than without you and have kids. You are what’s most important to me.”
“Are you sure? I mean, you might change your...”
“No, Selene. I’ve never really been concerned with it. I will admit I’d love to have kids with you someday. However, if it’s not in the cards, then that’s just the way it is. As long as I have ou, then I am happy,” he reassured her firmly.
Selene smiled slightly, reaching up to lay her hand over his. “You are really amazing,” she told him. “You really never stop surprising me with how kind and compassionate you’ve been with me.”
“You deserve to be happy and loved,” he explained. “I feel fortunate to have you in my life. You’ve taught me so much.”
“Yes, you have. I have never wanted anything as much as I want you and want you to have a good life,” he revealed. “I am a flawed man, but you’ve given me a sense of purpose.”
“What purpose is that?”
“To protect you. To help you heal. Eventually, to hopefully marry you.”
Selene’s eyes lowered. “Why are you so sure you want that?”
Nick sighed and glanced out the windshield. “I’ve never felt the powerful emotions you give me with anyone before,” he began before he looked ack at her. “I am falling head over heels and I already have lost the ability to ee a future without you in it.”
Selene turned her head and kissed his palm. “You make me feel hope and alive. I can’t tell you how much that means to me.”
After that, they went out to lunch, then Selene was off to work. She didn’t have to, but he wouldn’t interfere in her freedom to do what she chose. Besides, Paul had come to depend on her quite a bit. She’d become his go-to for taking over when he had something come up. Angie was happier with his reduced hours and getting more time with her husband. Selene was also thoroughly enjoying her new role, giving her a sense of accomplishment she badly needed.
Meanwhile, Nick was making the final arrangements for their trip. They’d be flying up with Rachel and Tom’s sub, Gail, and her two little dogs. It wasn’t a huge plane, but roomy enough to accommodate around 15 people. He hadn’t needed anything super big or fancy and tried to avoid using it unless he needed to. Usually, it was for conferences or meetings where he needed several staff members to attend with him. This was one of the rare times he was using it for personal reasons.
While Selene was still at work, Nick headed out for a shopping trip. He had some things he needed to buy, plus he wanted to look for one more thing for Selene. Something that would last a very long time and be a reminder of both her first real Christmas and how strongly he felt for her. He wasn’t completely sure what it would be, but he figured he would at least get some ideas. Plus, he needed condoms. The pills wouldn’t start working fully for about a month, they’d been told. Their relationship was too new to risk it and there was too much else going on.
Nick was looking at items in the window of an antiques store when a man approached him. He looked Middle Eastern, with black hair, dark eyes, and deep brown skin.
“Mr. Saber. I am Ahmed al-Sham. I’ve been assigned to your case,” he said by way of introduction, extending his right hand.
Nick noted his accent was not terribly strong, but enough to know the man was not originally from the US. He was muscular without looking over built, and a little over average height. Nick shook his hand, noting the firm, but not crushing grip.
“It’s a pleasure. Please, call me Nick I’d been told someone had eyes on her, but that he would e sending a specialist of some sort. May I ask what kind of specialist you are,” he inquired curiously, assessing the man.
The man’s lips twitched. “I have been involved in rescuing women from human traffickers. They took my sister. After I saved her, it became my mission in life.”
Nick nodded slowly in approval. “Very good. I suppose tjat’s why you were sent, then.”
Ahmed nodded. “I was briefed about your girlfriend’s situation. I thought it would be best to approach you first so that you can introduce me to her.”
“Well, then you can join me while I’m shopping so we can talk,” Nick stated, motioning to the door of the antiques shop. “Last of the things I need for Christmas.”
Ahmed smiled. “Yes, of course.”
For the next couple of hours, the two men spoke while Nick bought what he needed. Shopping for Rachel could be tricky, since the woman had everything, but it gave him time to look for something else for Selene.
“Tell me about her,” Ahmed had asked.
“She’s friendly but distant. You don’t realize it at first, but when I first started to talk to her, I realize she was revealing nothing about herself. Beneath that, she’d kind, giving… and hiding a whole lot of pain.”
“You love her,” Ahmed stated simply as though it were just a simple fact.
Nick paused and looked at the man a moment before nodding and looking closely at a Chinese vase. “I do. I haven’t told her, though.”
Ahmed nodded and looked around the shop. “Does she have nightmares about it?”
Nick shook his head. “Not very often. We discovered if she sleeps alone, they will happen, but she seems fine when she sleeps with me.”
“A sense of security,” Ahmed surmised. “That’s good. Feeling safe goes a long way to help healing.”
Nick smiled slightly. “She told me much the same thing. That I made her feel safe.”
Ahmed nodded. “Any flashbacks?”
Nick paused, remembering the lingerie store. “She’s had one that I was there for. Mostly she does ok, but I’m sure there are other triggers I don’t know about yet. I’ve been learning everything I can about it, but she does pretty well most of the time.”
“How long has she been free?”
Nick sighed. “A little more than 5 years. She’ll be 21 in April, then in June will be the anniversary,”
“She’s so young,” Ahmed remarked with a slight shake of his head. “Did I read correctly that her parents are responsible?”
Nick nodded and saw the disgusted expression cross the other man’s face. “Yes. They’ve been in touch – sort of.”
Nick nodded. He heard Ahmed mutter something that he thought sounded like ‘sick fucks’. He nodded again in agreement of his assessment.
By the time Nick was ready to head home, the pair had covered most of what needed to be and had agreed for Ahmed to come to the penthouse in the morning. Nick still hadn’t found what he was looking for, but he had still bought the rest of the yhings he needed and a few more things for Selene – just not that something special. He was going to need some help with ideas if he couldn’t figure something out soon. He was running out of time. He wondered if he should look online for inspiration.
“Why, Nick! Fancy seeing you here,” a feminine voice called from behind him.
Nick groaned and turned to see Linda walking toward him quickly. “Go away, Linda,” he groused before turning back around to go to his car.
“Oh, come on, Nick. We’re not children; we’re adults. We can talk to each other,” she reasoned. “What’s past is past.”
Nick stopped in his tracks and spun around angrily. Once upon a time, Linda had been fascinating to him. They partied, they fucked, and they went everywhere together. Now, he just saw the shallow woman as she was and her mask no longer hid her ugliness from him.
“There is nothing you can do or say that will make me want to have anything else to do with you, Linda. Stay away from me. Find someone else to leech from,” he snapped.
Linda looked at him with surprise, then her eyes narrowed. “I don’t need your money.”
“That’s funny,” he retorted. Steal from someone else, did you,” he countered before turning around and resuming his path.
“You’re making a mistake,” she shouted.
Nick ignored her and continued walking. He had found what he wanted and women like Linda were now just nuisances and background noise.
“How well do you know you’re new girlfriend,” he heard.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and he felt his anger rise. When he turned around to face her, the look on his face made her flinch.
“Stay the fuck away from her, Linda. If you go anywhere near her, I’ll have you slapped with a restraining order so fast it’ll make your head spin. After that, I’ll make sure you are persona non grata everywhere in this town, in this state, and everywhere else I have reach,” he spat through gritted teeth. “Don’t push me.”
“What’s so special about her,” Linda challenged in frustration.
“She is,” he answered simply.
“What makes her so special, then?”
“She’s a good person,” he explained. “She doen’t have ulterior motives. She doesn’t want anything. All she cares about is me.”
“I can be like that,” Linda said hurriedly.
Nick shook his head. “You don’t get it. She is just that way; it’s not an act. She’s real and honest and there are no pretenses. You can’t fake it.”
“You’re a sucker if you think she loves you,” she quipped.
“I’m not sure I’d trust your definition of love, Linda,” he sneered before returning to go on his way. He needed a drink. That woman did bad things to his nerves.
“Do I need to deal with her,” he heard Ahmed say from behind him.
Nick was startled and turned around, seeing Ahmed standing there with his hands in his pockets. Nick sighed and shook his head before he uinlocked the car.
“Keep her away from Selene. That bitch is poison.”
Ahmed made a sound of amusement. “I know the type. I was leaving when I saw her watching you. I figured I’d better stay close and keep an eye on things.”
“Thanks,” Nick responded wryly.
“Something like that. She just showed up recently when Selene and I were first photographed together,” Nick explained, leaning back against his car to speak to the man.
Ahmed nodded. “I saw those. You both look happy. I’m guessing that is what drew the attention of the person who’s been contacting you.”
Nick’s lips thinned. “She warned me they found her without them before. Those pictures announced it for her this time.”
“We have the advantage here, don’t forget that. You’ve got at least three men on her at all times and they have few opportunities to approach her. I imagine she never had that before,” he concluded.
Nick frowned. “Three?”
Ahmed smirked. “Yes. We’ve had a guy on her since you called, plus, every time I check on things, there are two agents sitting on her. Sometimes a third.”
“Huh,” Nick responded in some surprise. “I wasn’t aware.”
Ahmed then smiled, clapping Nick on his shoulder. “That’s what I’m for. I did forget to give you my number,” he added, then extended a card toward him that seemed to have appeared from nowhere.
Nick accepted it. Plain white, the number was hand-written in neat print. “You could get these printed,” he joked.
Grinning, Ahmed explained. “My number chamges often. This is easier.”
Nick chuckled and tucked it into his suit jacket’s inner pocket. “That makes perfect sense. Thank you,” he added, giving Ahmed a look that said more than what he could say in words.
Ahmed nodded in understanding. “You take care of her and I’ll watch both your backs. I will be very happy to help see these people are stopped and pay for their crimes. They won’t have a chance to get to her.”
Nick was soon driving back toward the penthouse when he spotted an art gallery. An idea hit him, so he found a place to park. Inside the gallery, it wasn’t long until someone appeared to see if he required any assistance. Nick explained what he wanted and a bit about her likes and dislikes. The woman stood there thinking a moment, then her face lit up.
“I think I have a few things you will want to consider. If you don’t see anything here, though, I know who to send you to,” she informed him as she lead him toward the pieces she thought might fit his needs. “Though, a portrait might also be a nice thing.”
Nick laughed. “I don’t think they’d have time for that this year. It’s a good idea for the future, though.”
A half hour later, Nick exited the gallery with a piece of paper holding an address to an artist the lady said would be perfect. Twenty minutes later, he pulled up in a parking lot for the building he’d been directed to. It was a factory converted into lofts. It took him a few minutes, but he eventually found the door he was supposed to knock on.
A shirtless man with long, light brown hair opened the door. Paint was splattered on his low-sitting jeans and his torso. “Can I help you?”
“I think you might. I was told you were the artist to talk to. I am looking for something special for my girlfriend for Christmas,” Nick explained.
The artist eyed Nick up and down skeptically. “I would think you’d get her something gold with diamonds.”
Nick smirked at the man’s assumption. “You’d be right for a lot of women, but she’s not that kind of girl.”
“Yeah? What kind of girl is she,” the man challenged.
Nick was growing annoyed at the man’s attitude, but he wasn’t going to give up. He decided to be as honest as he could be.
“The kind that loves flowers and butterflies, hates pink and girly things, and would give her last dollar to someone else if she thought they needed it more than her,” Nick concluded.
The long-haired man grinned and opened the door all the way. “Come in.”
“Sorry about that but I’m particular about who I let in. I don’t want my art showing up just anywhere,” the man explained as he closed the door.
Nick looked around. The place had little resemblance to an apartment with room walls made of cheap tin roofing material, unpainted wooden window frames, and bare wood flooring. However, the kitchen area, couch and TV, rugs and tables provided the essentials.
“It’s cheap,” the man explained at Nick’s scrutinizing look.
Nick chuckled. “Itt serves it’s purpose.”
The man nodded then looked over toward a cheap plywood door. “The paintings are over here,” he said. “Some paint may not be dry so be careful.”
Nick followed, watching what he might step on or brush against. Once inside, he saw it was a ramshackle studio where he worked. But the environment faded in the background when he caught sight of the artwork. Entranced, he looked each over in turn. The focus in each was some sort of mythological character modernized and realistic in appearance. The detail was astonishing and blew Nick away. A siren, a banshee, a harpy, a sphinx… then he saw it. A phoenix rising from the ashes. The details were so fine you could almost swear the individual flakes of the ash pile.
“I’m really proud of that one,” the man said, his arms wrapped around his chest with his hands tucked into his armpits. “It just seemed to flow.”
“It’s perfect,” Nick stated. “How much?”
The man seemed to think about it a moment. “Where would it be going?”
Nick looked at him in surprise, then remembered his earlier comment. “Somewhere in the penthouse, then to our house when we buy one.”
The man chewed his lower lip, then nodded. “Twelve grand.”
Nick nodded and pulled out his checkbook. “Sold. Do you ever do custom pieces?”
“Not usually. People usually don’t want real art, they want a picture,” he told Nick.
“My girlfriend is a Native American woman. She’s incredibly beautiful with bright green eyes. I was hoping to have something painted that would use her as the model, but being something creative. Something that expresses her artisticly. Would that be in your area of interest,” Nick inquired as he filled the check out.
“Do you have any pictures of her I could see right now?”
“Sure. Who do I make this out to? I’ll show you in a moment.”
“Grant. Grant Sawyer,” he said, leaning to peek at the check Nick was writing. “Saber? Like, that big land development and real estate guy?”
Nick nodded. “That would be me,” he confirmed, tearing the check out and handing it to Paul. He then pulled out his phone and turned on the screen. His default wallpaper was his favorite picture of her. He showed it to Grant.
“Wait. This is for more than I...”
“It’s worth it,” Nick said, then indicated the other should look at his phone screen.
“Hey, I’ve seen you guys in pictures,” he realized. “I could do something for you guys, I think. She’s fucking gorgeous,” he raved, then winced. “Sorry man. I’m not meaning to drool over your girl or anything.”
Nick chuckled. “Don’t worry about it. I would be more surprised if you didn’t find her attractive. Also, you’re right. She is fucking gorgeous.”
“So Native, huh,” the guy asked as he looked at other pictures Nick showed him. “Man, you are lucky. You said she’s a nice person, right?”
Nick nodded his confirmation.
“So, she’s strong, too. Survived something difficult, right?”
A brow raised as Nick began to ask.
“The Phoenix, man. You came here looking for something symbolic. The Phoenix is the ultimate symbol for a survivor,” he explained.
“Yes. You’re right. She has been through a lot.”
Grant read into what Nick wasn’t saying by his expression and body language. “I’ll give it a shot. You have a timeframe?”
“Her birthday’s in April. Otherwise, there’s Christmas,” Nick offered.
“So, plently of leeway time,” Grant assessed. “I’ll come up with some sketches and see what inspiration strikes. Any chance I could meet her? I can get a better feel to guide me.”
Nick considered it a moment. “Well, Selene does like art. Perhaps we could arrange something.”
“Cool! You have my number, right?”
Nick looked at the paper and shook his head. “No, I just have your address.”
“I’ll get you a card,” Grant said quickly, walking over to a desk in the corner of the room.
Nick realized the man was barefoot, a fact which amused him to a degree. In a way, it reminded him of Selene. When she wasn’t trying to get his attention, that is.
“Here you go,” Grant announced, sticking the card out toward him.
“Thank you,” Nick told him before tucking the card into his jacket pocket. “I’ll send someone to collect the painting tomorrow, if that’s alright with you? I want to have it framed before I give it to her.”
Grant nodded, putting his hand in his back pockets and rocking back on his heels. “That works. I usually get up around 8, and I have nothing going on until 2, so...”
“I’ll have her head over in the morning, then.”
As he left, Nick smiled to himself. It was perfect and now he had a plan for a future gift as well. Now, he had to make a couple of phone calls.
Tomorrow night, they had the last holiday party before the trip and he was ready for it to be over with already. He wanted Selene all to himself with no interference.