“Mark doesn’t talk to anyone.”

“Yes. I can see that.” She hesitates again. “Look, Sara. I don’t want to pressure you. Actually”—she laughs awkwardly—“I really do want to pressure you. I know you quit the gallery, but will you please come back to work for a few weeks?”

I blink, confused. “Did Mark ask you to talk to me?”

“No. I meant it when I said he’s not talking to me.” There’s a strain in her voice that rings oddly personal, when Mark is personal with no one. But then, Mark is doing a lot of things I don’t expect this week. “Please help,” she adds. “He needs to heal and so does his mother.”

“How well do you know his mother?” I ask, curious about what feels more and more like her personal bond with the family.

“She hired me, and she’s—” her voice cracks—“she’s a special person. And a stubborn crazy woman when she wants to be. I have to handle everything well or she’ll be trying to work through her chemo treatments.

“Amanda and Ralph are in over their heads,” she continues, “and I’ve been handling all the angry artists, crazy reporters, and customers who insist on talking to management. I need help. I can’t run Riptide and Allure at the same time.”

Mark’s checked out. Totally, completely, checked out. His mother must be worse than we know. Maybe even worse than Crystal knows. “I can’t make any promises,” I hedge, wanting to help but unsure of what I can do with this investigation going on. “I have to go to a meeting. Do you have a number I can call you back at?”

“Of course, but Mark is headed out there tonight. We should talk before he arrives and come up with a plan that he’ll accept.”

So Mark isn’t just handing her the power. She’s taking it, and the two of us teaming up are destined to go toe-to-toe with Bossman in a big way before this is over. “I’ll call you back tonight,” I promise. “What time do you leave?” A knock sounds on my door and Ralph pokes his head in, holding up a newspaper.

“Let me give you my cell,” Crystal offers as he dashes to my desk, sets the paper down, and leaves again. “And I don’t care what time it is. Whatever works for you,” she adds, “I don’t sleep much anyway.”

We exchange numbers and end the call. Setting the phone back into the cradle, my gaze lands on the newspaper headlines Ralph obviously wanted me to see: Local Art Gallery Paints a Masterpiece of Scandal. I grab the paper and begin to read.

One employee is deep in the midst of a counterfeiting scandal, with renowned artist Ricco Alvarez her partner or perhaps the mastermind of her efforts, while another employee of the gallery is completely missing. Where is Rebecca Mason? Did she flee involvement in the scandal, or is she a victim of a darker, more menacing cover-up?

I quickly scan the article. There’s no mention of Ava at all, or of her attack on me. In fact, it’s a rather uninformed article that says little to nothing. But what breaks my heart is the photo of Rebecca. It’s the same shot of her that’s on the Allure website, her long brown hair shiny and sleek to her shoulders, a huge, happy smile on her face. She was so like Ella, young and just starting out in life, and now she is gone . . . like Ella. I’m afraid for Ella, and with each day that passes, I worry more that she will never return. I don’t want her to end up dead like Rebecca.

Dead. There is that word I’ve avoided and out of nowhere, it throws me into a memory I don’t want to relive. I’m back at the hospital after my mother’s heart attack, and I stand in the waiting room, waiting for the doctor. I can see the blue cloth seats lining the wall, hear the cartoons that some man has been watching for hours. There’s a woman with her knees to her chest in a seat in the corner, and some sort of flute music comes from the speakers. The doctor enters the room and all of us stand up, but his eyes are on me. His eyes are brown. His hair is black. He is pale as he walks toward me.

I’m sorry. We tried everything and she fought hard, but your mother didn’t make it.

My eyes burn with a memory I haven’t relived so completely in years, and suddenly the sweetness of the rose scent clinging to the room is overwhelming, and I feel like I’m about to be sick. I grab the trash can, desperately willing the sickness to pass. What’s wrong with me? I never get sick.

The door opens, and I don’t have to look up to know it’s Chris. Even like this, I feel that current that he brings with him into a room, but I can’t seem to lift my head.

He kneels beside me and his hand settles on my knee, feeling warm and deeply right. “Hey,” he murmurs softly. “What happened, baby? Are you okay? Talk to me.”

Talk to me. He says that often, and I like that. I like that he listens to me and he cares. He’s so a part of me that I don’t know what I’d do if I lost him, like my mother. Like I fear I’ve lost Ella.

“Sara, baby. I need to know you’re okay.”

“I am,” I manage to whisper. “I just suddenly felt sick. It came out of nowhere, but it’s passing.”

“Do you need a drink?”

“No.” I manage to straighten. “I’m okay.”

His gaze catches on the desk and he grabs the newspaper, reading what I had minutes before. “You got sick suddenly, huh?” He tosses it back on the desk. “After reading that article?”

“I was supposed to be filling in for her.” My voice trembles. “She was supposed to come back.”

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