Forcefully I shove aside the thoughts and reenter the present. Somehow I’m standing still. Out of myself. Out of control. Setting my feet back in motion, I push through the entryway to the offices and my attention turns to the reception desk where our receptionist, Amanda, is taking a message on a call while the often flippant but always efficient accounting manager, Ralph, is kneeling at a drawer to remove a file.
I lean on the wall and watch them, wondering when they’ll notice me. Amanda groans as she finishes the call and three more lines begin to ring, shoving her hands through her long brunette hair. “This is insanity,” she wails. “They won’t stop ringing. The press and the questions are driving me nuts.”
Ralph grabs the lines one after another and quickly takes inquiries, then puts them all on hold. “All press,” he says. “Focus on putting them on hold and getting to customers and the talent who support this place.”
“Ralph, you’re not hearing me. They won’t stop calling.”
“There’s an ancient Chinese saying about the press,” he tells her, referencing his heritage.
“What is it?” she asks. “And it better be good.”
“I don’t remember. I’ll ask my grandmother.”
Amanda growls at him, “Ralph, this is serious.”
“It says,” I interject, “that if you put the press on hold, leave them on hold.”
They both whirl around to face me, all but jumping out of their skins, a feeling I understand too well right now.
“Mr. Compton,” Ralph says, straightening fully. “We weren’t sure if we’d see you today or not.”
“I’m hoping to get a plan of action in place here and return to New York in the next few days.”
Amanda answers another call and puts it on hold. “Another reporter.”
“I wasn’t joking,” I reply. “Put them on hold and leave them on hold.” Considering Mary was arrested for trying to pass off counterfeit art and Sara resigned from her job to pretend fairy tales come true with one of the richest artists on the planet, I add, “Put the phones on the answering service and just check them for important calls once an hour. I don’t want an intern in here who could say the wrong thing. I assume I have a stack of messages?”
“All on your desk,” she says, giving me a concerned look I really don’t need right now. “How is your mother?”
“Recovering and hopefully going home on Thursday.” I glance at the two of them. “We’re going to keep the gallery shut for the next two weeks except for private showings, and that includes all scheduled events.”
“Oh, good,” Amanda breathes out. “I was afraid we’d have to deal with reporters in person.”
“We will, but not until I’m here to do it myself.” I glance at Ralph. “You’re picky and obnoxiously honest about people. Go through the sales resumes and prescreen. Send me your top ten by e-mail. I’ll look them over for the future.”
“Obnoxiously honest,” he repeats. “I’ll try to live up to that observation.”
“See that you do.”
Amanda clears her throat and surprises me with, “Speaking of Sara, can we ask her to come back when she returns from Paris with Chris Merit? She’s so good with people, and, well, the questions about Mary and Rebecca are awkward.”
I glance at Ralph expectantly and he quickly says, “I’m handling the Mary questions for Amanda.”
“Nonanswers and more fortune cookie quotes.”
I arch a brow and he happily supplies, “Confucius says there are answers in silence. Confucius says speak not, listen not.” He shrugs. “Whatever pops into my head. It works. They ask what the saying means and what I’m trying to tell them, and forget what the question was.”
Amanda interjects, sounding distressed again. “All the regular customers want to know if Rebecca’s really dead. I keep telling them she left the country and this could all be a mistake. She could be alive.”
Anger spirals through me and my gaze lands hard on her, and I speak from the gnawing ball of emotion in my gut. “She’s dead, Amanda.”
She pales. “But—”
“Her passport shows her return. Ava got to Rebecca before she got to me. So I repeat. She’s dead. We can’t bring her back by pretending otherwise.”
Amanda sobs and Ralph makes some kind of choking sound. “Denial only drags the hurt out. I’ll be in my office.” I turn and head down the hallway, refusing to look at the office that was once Rebecca’s.
Reaching my office I enter and shut the door, then lean against it facing my desk. I stare at the damnable mural behind my desk that Chris painted that reminds me of him and his warning that I was pushing Rebecca too hard and too far.
“Damn it to hell,” I murmur, running my hand over my face. I tell myself I was doing Amanda a favor. She has to deal with the truth.
No. Fuck. That back there wasn’t about Amanda.
It was about me. I have to deal with it.
Shoving off the door, I pull out my cell and dial Crystal, far more concerned about the New York press where she is than I am by the press I am dealing with here, and wait as her phone begins to ring.
She answers, “Mr. Compton.”
Mr. Compton, not Mark—and I somehow know that means she’s with employees, just as Rebecca had addressed me formally at work and as Master elsewhere. “The press is all over me here,” I say. “What’s the story there?”