“Breast. Stage 3.”

“Operable or nonoperable?”

“Operable. She’s having a mastectomy tomorrow and starts radiation in three weeks.”

“That’s positive,” he says, and they’re welcome words from a man who says little and is so knowledgeable about cancer. “You know, we’ve had our differences, Mark, but I’ll walk through hell and back to help you help her, if you need me to.”

“I know.” The gnawing in my gut starts all over again, this time created by guilt. I knew Sara meant a lot to him, but I tried to get between them. She reminded me of Rebecca, and I was pissed at Chris for warning Rebecca away from me. He was right, though. Rebecca should have stayed the hell away from me.

“Mark. You still there?”

Mentally, I shake myself. “Yes. I’m here.”

“You didn’t cause Rebecca’s death. You know that, right?”

The pain moves to my chest and becomes crushing. “I used one woman to keep another at a distance. One of those women killed the other one. How is that not my fault?”

“You didn’t do this. Ava killed Rebecca.”

My other hand curls into a fist on the bar. “I should have listened to you when you said Rebecca was in over her head with me.”

“Don’t do this to yourself. Take it from me—I’ve been down this path. I’m still on it now. It won’t lead you anyplace good.”

“You don’t know everything. She left me for another man. She was traveling the world with him, living the good life, and I convinced her to come back to me. That things would be different between us. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. I knew I was incapable of being different. And she did. She came home, and Ava got to her before I could. I didn’t even know she’d returned.”

Silence stretches between us, and I am certain he’s judging me—and, for once, I know it’s deserved. Hell, I’m judging me.

“I know this is hard to swallow,” he finally says. “I know it’s eating you alive, but this was the work of one crazy woman. Not you.”

“A woman I pushed over the edge.”

“I could tell you everything you need to hear, but you won’t hear me. Sometimes there’s only one solution.”

“And that would be?”

“Get drunk.”

I laugh humorlessly. “This coming from a man who hates booze.”

“There are times when it’s called for. I could use a good stiff drink right now myself. What’s going on with the investigation into Rebecca’s death?”

While I fill Chris in, I turn to check on Crystal, and my eyes collide with hers. I feel the connection with a surge of adrenaline like nothing I’ve ever experienced. No woman affects me like this. None. Ever. What is it about Crystal? Is it the challenge? The time in my life?

“I’ll call you tomorrow to check on your mother,” I hear Chris say.

“Right.” I can’t look away from Crystal. And “can’t” isn’t usually in my vocabulary. “Tomorrow. I’ll talk to you then.”

“She’s going to be fine,” Chris adds and hangs up, as if he wasn’t ready to hear any other answer.

I’m not, either. She has to f**king be okay. There isn’t another option, and damn it, I plan to tell her that in the morning.

Sliding my phone back into my pocket, I motion the waiter over and have him put the tab on my room and order a car to pick up Crystal. The distraction does nothing to stop the heat racing through my blood. I walk toward Crystal, fighting that predatory male instinct I own as completely as my name. That part of me that wants to take her upstairs and f**k her until I remember nothing but the pleasure. I need that. I need it like I do my next breath, but I know it’s wrong. I know I’ve been so f**king wrong this past year about too much. I can’t do it again. I won’t do it again. I won’t f**k up Crystal like I did Rebecca.

I stop in front of Crystal’s chair and, unable to resist the need to touch her, when I’d swear I never need to touch anyone, I hold out my hand and she slides her palm into mine. It’s tiny and soft, as I know she would be in my arms. I pull her to her feet, so close that the delicious scent of her is licking at my senses the way I’d like to be licking at her mouth, her body.

Her gaze lifts to mine, and there is heat in those intelligent blue eyes—but there’s also concern that tells me she sees far more than she should. Far more than I let anyone see, and yet I still hold on to her hand. She’s real to me in a way no one else has felt in too long. In a world that seems painted in false shadows, I need something real in my life right now.

“Everything okay?” she asks softly.

“No. Everything is not okay.” I have no idea why I’ve admitted this. What the f**k is this woman doing to me? I’m feeling angry. I want to bury myself in her and forget everything, and it kills me to know how wrong that is. How impossible.

Her expression softens. “I know, and I’d tell you it’s going to be okay—but that won’t make it better and it won’t make you believe it.”

Almost exactly what Chris said, and he understands me because he’s like me. Maybe she is, too. Truly, though, I have no clue. I’ve never been so clueless. I need to get away from this woman before I make another mistake we’ll both regret. I release her hand and step back from her. “I’ll walk you to the car I just had ordered for you.”

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