“You know I’d like it if Mark watched the playbacks, Dana,” my father agrees, and I feel him watching me, even though I don’t look at him. “He just doesn’t enjoy watching them with me.”
“I love baseball,” Crystal chimes in, walking to a chair to sit down, and saving me from a topic I don’t want to address. “One of my brothers played in college and I never missed a game.” She glances at my father. “I’ve wanted to go to one of your games ever since Dana told me you coached.”
“You can join me in the box seats when the season starts,” my mother tells Crystal. “I planned on offering anyway.”
Crystal’s face lights up with excitement. “I’d love that.”
My mother smiles and turns her attention to me, rumpling my hair with her fingers. “You look a mess. Your tie is half off and you have bags under your eyes.”
My smile is genuine, if strained by worry. “Leave it to you, Mother, to tell me exactly how it is. It’s been a long day, but worth it to get here to see you.” That ache in my gut throbs, and I again think how crazy it is that she looks this good when she has stage 3 breast cancer. I soften my voice. “How are you?”
I watch emotions shift on her face. Uncertainty. Worry. Fear. And finally, “I’m pissed.” Her voice cracks. “I don’t have time for cancer, and . . .” She abruptly looks around me at Crystal. “Did you bring those reports I wanted?”
“No,” I say firmly. “You’re not working the night before you have a double—”
“Don’t say it,” she hisses. “Don’t say it. I can’t . . . just don’t.” She turns to my father. “Steven, I need some water, please.”
My father quickly hands her the cup and I sit there, frozen in place from seeing my strong, unbreakable mother struggling for composure.
“I forgot the reports in my trunk,” Crystal says, popping to her feet. “My trunk sticks. Mark, can you please come help me?”
My mother spits her water out and almost chokes on a sudden burst of laughter. “Mark?” she inquires, glancing at me. “You let her call you Mark?” Her gaze flicks to Crystal. “I knew I liked this girl. She knows how to put a man in his place. No ‘Mr. Compton’ for her.”
My eyes meet Crystal’s, and when I expect her to gloat, she gives me an apologetic look. “Would you help me? Please?”
I give her a nod. I need a minute to get a grip on what I’m feeling, anyway. Something I never feel or need—but I do now.
Following her into the hall, I pull the door to the room shut.
The instant I turn to face her, she confronts me in a soft whisper. “I thought you couldn’t say no to your mother. Why would you start tonight, when she asked for the reports?”
I’m taken aback and irritated. “You barely know any of us. Don’t try to tell me how to handle my mother.”
Her lips tighten and her eyes meet mine, and suddenly her expression changes, as if something in mine has softened her. Which is impossible. I’m unreadable. She surprises me by taking my hand in hers. I surprise myself by letting her.
“You’re trying to protect her,” she says. “I get that, but she’s having a double mastectomy, Mark. She wouldn’t even let you say the words. She needs work to keep from thinking about it.”
I stare down into her pale blue eyes, and I don’t know what’s happening to me. I don’t have control. She has control. Worse, she’s right about my mother.
I trust this woman more than I trust myself right now. And that scares me in a way I haven’t been scared in a very long time.
At nine o’clock, a hint from my father to leave them alone sends me on my way, and I head to the lobby. To my surprise I find Crystal, who I thought had left a good hour earlier, sitting in a waiting room chair with her laptop open. She doesn’t notice me and I find myself watching her work. I’m drawn to this woman, who’s the complete opposite of my type, for reasons I don’t understand. Maybe it’s simply that she’s different from everything familiar, and everything familiar feels wrong right now.
Her brow knits adorably as she keys some kind of data into whatever program she has open, long strands of her blonde hair draping her shoulders and cheeks. My groin tightens with an image of that hair draped over my stomach and hips, and guilt twists inside me.
It’s too soon. I only just discovered that Rebecca’s absence hadn’t meant she was traveling the world with the rich businessman she’d met. It meant she was gone forever.
And I remind myself that Rebecca was the one person who saw beneath my mask. She knew what I’ve always known: that sex is a tool for me. It’s how I survive, how I block things out. How I blocked her out. I was always honest with her. I never promised her love. But, damn it to hell, I selfishly convinced her to try to live without it. Maybe with her, I came as close to love as I’m capable of ever coming. I did need her, when I’ve never needed anyone before.
And right now, I need to get out of my own head. I refocus on Crystal. “I thought I sent you home long ago.”
He head lifts and she shuts her computer. “I have your bags. I wasn’t about to make your day worse by not having them.” She shoves her notebook into her oversized purse that clearly doubles as a briefcase. I watch her delicate little hands, wondering why I don’t mind when she touches me. And why I want her to touch me now.