“Don’t worry. I have a high tolerance for assholes. It’s a gift my father taught me.”

His remark hits a hot spot I’ve been silently nursing. I almost died last week, and my father doesn’t even know. “Your father must resemble mine,” I say, my tone cynical.

“I sure as hell hope not,” he says. “There’s a news truck out front. I’ll watch for you at the rear parking lot.”

Stuffing my phone back in my purse, I discover Chris is still on his, still listening intently to whatever is being said to him, his gaze cast off to the distance.

If he knows when the Porsche is pulled up beside us, and the attendant holds my door, he doesn’t acknowledge it. Concerned, I pause outside the car and wait, and it’s a good three more minutes before he ends the call, his jaw flexing as he slides his cell back into his pocket. I watch as he glances up and looks startled that the car is here; he’s rarely startled by anything. He heads toward the driver’s side and I climb in, allowing the attendant to shut me inside.

“Everything still a ‘go’ with Jacob, I assume?” Chris asks as he puts the car into gear.

“He’s already there and he met with Mark. There’s a news truck in front of the gallery, so he wants us to meet him at the back.” Softening my voice, I ask, “What about Amber?”

He reaches the end of the drive and brakes, staring straight ahead for several seconds before he looks at me, his eyes dark. “She’s turned violent. They feel she needs more attention and a longer stay than initially planned.”

“That’s not good.”

“No. It’s not.”

I want to comfort him, but Chris doesn’t like fluffy words any more than I do, and they won’t ease the self-blame eating him alive. I think of how he compared Amber to Rebecca, and himself to Mark, and a bad feeling slides through me. His helping Mark isn’t just about Mark. It’s about repenting for his own sins.

• • •

Chris cuts down the alleyway between the coffee shop and the gallery and says into his phone, “We’ll pull up to the back door to avoid the press. I’ll let Sara go in, and then park. Right.”

“You think the press is going to swarm us?” I ask when he hangs up.

“After that news piece this morning, everyone and their uncle will be after a story. So yes. If not now, soon.”

He maneuvers the 911 to only inches from the door, where Jacob stands, looking his normal stoic self in his standard dark suit. “Remember,” Chris warns as Jacob opens my door. “Ralph and Amanda are going to know what was on the news. There’s been nothing about you yet, but tomorrow will be a different story. You need to figure out what you want to tell them, and when.”

I give a short nod and exit the car. It’s about to get nasty. It had been an odd choice of words from Chris, but so appropriate. Murder is as nasty as it gets.

Jacob shuts the car door and I enter the gallery with him on my heels; then he says, “Stay inside.”

I turn to see him going back out. Grabbing the door, I gape at the crush of press rushing the 911, now pulled into a parking spot. Someone shouts and several people start running in my direction. I back up and shut the door.

Stunned, I hold my breath and wait for Chris and Jacob to appear. This is insanity. It’s the stuff of fake tabloids, not real lives. Seconds tick by like hours, and I begin to get nervous. Should I call the police on the press for trespassing?

I rush into the office. “Amanda,” I say urgently. “I need the number . . .” My words trail off when I discover she’s not at her desk.

“She’s a no-show so far,” Ralph calls from his office. “And she’s not answering her phone.”

Oh God. What else this morning? Concerned, I go to his doorway to find him looking frazzled, all kinds of files overlapping one another on his desk and a calculator tape dipping to the ground over the top. “Has she ever done this before? I remember her being reliable.”

“Never,” he says, seeming irritated at the need to abandon his calculator. “But the Ava news this morning could have spooked her.”

“You heard,” I say, taking the blows as they come.

“I’m sure the whole city heard. Murder, sex scandals, and so on and so on. Amanda’s a ‘drink beer out of a glass’ kind of girl. Hand her a bottle, and she doesn’t know what to do with it.”

“Ah . . . translation?”

“It’s too much for her.”

“And you?”

“I’ll live, especially since Bossman tells me you’re going to be around. But you have sales things to do and I can’t do her job and mine, too. Bossman has me running all kinds of financials on the gallery that require focus.” He lowers his voice. “The kind of data you put together to put a business on the market.”

“What?” I close the distance between us and stop in front of his desk, keeping my tone hushed. “You think he intends to sell the gallery?”

“My mama didn’t raise an idiot. He’s absolutely reviewing his options. That, or considering a merger with Riptide.”

“You must be mistaken.” Mark would never sell his pride and joy.

“I’m not.”

He says it so definitively that I can’t help but pause. If he’s right, that leads me to the conclusion that either Mark’s mother’s health is worse than we know, or the situation with the police is worse than we know. Or both.

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones Inside Out Romance
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