“And coming by,” Ralph adds. “Everyone wants to know about Mary being arrested for selling counterfeit art. Having our salesperson do such a thing doesn’t exactly instill confidence in the public. Having a famous artist like Ricco Alvarez help her? Even less. Our customers and the talent are both dropping like flies.”

“It’s the Rebecca questions that are the hardest for me,” Amanda adds. “The press is asking about her. They push hard, and even if Mark would let us talk about her, I really can’t. All I know is that she left and she’s supposed to return. I guess they think she was involved, too.”

Unbelievably, Mark has left them completely in the dark. “I know it’s hard,” I say. “Isn’t the phone set on the answering service? Why are you talking to reporters at all?”

“They trick us,” she replies. “They leave messages and pretend to be customers.”

This seems to confirm my suspicion that Ralph talked to a reporter, not Ricco’s attorney.

“Has Mark given you any idea when he’ll be able to return, or bring in help?” Chris asks.

Ralph snorts. “He’s not even returning our calls. We have to talk to Crystal Smith now.”

“Who’s that?” I ask.

“The name sounds remotely familiar,” Chris comments. “I think I might have talked to her regarding one of my auction items at some point.”

“I’d never heard of her before this week,” Amanda replies. “She’s the acting manager of Riptide while Mark’s mother is out sick. She’s the one who told us about the blood infection. He didn’t. The last thing Mark told us was to organize a grand reopening party, but Crystal told us not to.”

Chris scrubs his jaw, looking as puzzled as I feel. “She’s overriding Mark?”

“He doesn’t even let anyone else choose the coffee in this place,” I add.

“Exactly,” Ralph agrees. “King Bossman seems to be MIA. We have Queen Smith instead.”

Just how hard had the past week hit Mark?

Chris’s hand rests on the back of my neck. “Let’s go talk a minute.” He glances between Ralph and Amanda. “If you have any problems while we’re here, come get one of us. We’ll be in Sara’s office.”

He urges me forward, drawing my hand into his as he pulls me into my old office. Rebecca’s old office. I can smell her rose-scented candles that should long be faded, like a part of her lingers here.

“I’m concerned Mark’s mother is far worse than they know,” Chris says, after he shuts the door. “There’s no other explanation for him letting the gallery spin out of control like this.”

“That, and grief over Rebecca.”

“I’m not going to pretend to understand the relationship he had with Rebecca. The end result is the same, and it’s not good. This place is falling apart. I’m going to go to his office to look around.”

“I’ll call this Crystal Smith person.”

Pausing at the door, he glances at his watch. “We need to leave within a half hour for our meeting with David.”

I nod and he leaves, shutting me inside. Shrugging out of my coat, I toss it on the visitor’s chair and sit behind the desk, already reaching for the phone when my gaze catches on a painting to the right of the door. The brilliant painting of roses by local artist Georgia O’Nay is from Mark’s personal collection, chosen for Rebecca’s wall for reasons representing their Master and submissive bond.

Emotions swell in my chest and I force them aside, grabbing the phone and punching the auto-dial to Riptide. “I need to speak to Mark Compton,” I say when the receptionist answers.

“Just a moment,” the woman replies without hesitation, and I hold my breath, waiting for that steely, commanding voice of his, only to hear a female say, “This is Crystal Smith. Can I help you?”

Disappointment fills me. “Ms. Smith. Hi. This is Sara McMillan, and I—”

“Sara.” There is a lift to her voice that almost sounds like excitement, though I can’t understand how that could be. “Are you back in the States?”

“I . . . yes. You know who I am?”

“Of course. Though we didn’t work together directly, I was very aware of your replacing Rebecca and taking her role with Allure.”

Replacing Rebecca. The choice of words stabs me with such guilt that I slump forward and press my hand to my face. Replacing Rebecca. I took her life. I lived her life.

“Sorry,” she says softly, seeming to read my discomfort, or perhaps I’d been silent longer than I realized. “That was a poor choice of words.”

“You said nothing wrong,” I say, and it hits me that her sensitivity has to mean she knows more than the rest of the staff, but I’m afraid to say more and assume incorrectly. “The reason I’m calling is that I’m here at Allure. I’ve been trying to reach Mark and had hoped he’d be here.”

“He’s been by his mother’s side pretty much around the clock the past few days. She’s doing better now, but it was a rough ride.”

“So she’s okay?”

“As okay as someone battling stage-three cancer who just recovered from a blood infection can be.”

Recovered. That’s a good word. “Right. Of course. Do you know his plans here? He’s not even talking to the staff.”

“No.” She hesitates and there’s a weird tension in the air before she says, “I offered to switch places with him and run Allure while he’s here in New York, but I guess there are reasons he has to be there as well. He won’t really talk to me.”

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones Inside Out Romance
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