A stricken look washes over her face and she flattens her hands on my chest. “I’m not running. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You are, and you do. You’re more transparent than you think, Ms. Smith. And you are nowhere as near as strong as you pretend to be. You’re a weak shell about to break.”


She starts to tremble in my arms. “I know what you’re doing. I read the journal. You made her feel vulnerable when you felt vulnerable. Well, guess what? You want to be with me? You have to be vulnerable with me.”

I set her away from me. “You read Rebecca’s journal?” I demand, anger sliding through me. I’m not sure why, or even if it’s at her.

“I thought it was part of the files you left for me, and I only read the first entry.”

I know that entry all too well. That’s when he takes me to the club; that’s when he takes me places he knows I don’t want to go. And she was right. I did. I pushed in all the wrong ways by involving Ava and Ryan, giving away control by involving them, when I should have held onto it tighter. That was been my mistake. A mistake I’d made by not shutting things down with Rebecca before I couldn’t walk away and neither could she. One mistake I won’t make with Crystal.

“This is who I am and what I am. I think it’s pretty clear that you can’t handle that.”

She steps back as if slapped. “I won’t lash out at you, like you are at me.

I remove my cell from my pocket and dial Kurt. “Tell Jacob that Ms. Smith is ready to leave.” I end the call. “Go back to the hotel.”

“And if I refuse to leave?”

“Then you’ll fuck me on my terms, starting on your knees in the center of the room.”

Anger and pain tighten her normally gentle features, driving me to the brink of aborting my mission to drive her away. But that would be selfish—it would be for me, not her.

Her response is a non-response, when I crave something. Anything. She doesn’t scream or shout or attack. She simply turns and walks out of the playroom. Several moments later, the door to my private rooms closes. I am as it was intended: alone, in what feels like a shallow grave getting deeper. But at least she’s not in it with me.

Mark

I spend what’s left of the night at the club, and the way my thoughts of Rebecca and Crystal merge has me certain I’m losing my mind. I have to find the Master in me again, and I need to do it now.

By ten, I’ve been woken up by a call from Blake and the confirmation that the press is all over the hotel.

“I’m moving Crystal and I’ll pack your things. I’ll text you the hotel address. Crystal wants to go to the gallery. I don’t think it’s a good idea until after this dies down.”

“Have her work from her hotel,” I agree.

Then he says, “We need to talk about what happened last night.”

“Later.” I end the call before I get a lecture on right and wrong—I’m already confused enough by the way the two seem to be reversing their meanings. I immediately text Tiger to move our upcoming meeting from his office to the new hotel.

An hour later, I’ve dodged a conversation with Kurt about the club, snuck past two reporters, and checked into my new hotel suite. At ten minutes until twelve, I’ve showered and dressed in gray slacks and a gray sweater. Tiger, dressed in jeans and a cream-colored sweater, arrives on the hour.

“Haven’t killed anyone I should know about, have you?” he asks, claiming a seat at the dining room table.

“No one you should know about,” I retort dryly, sitting across from him. “The financial reports for the gallery,” I say, sliding them across the table. “Feel out my options for a sale, and quickly. I need to be ready if my mother doesn’t improve soon.” Or if Crystal quits.

“I’ll take care of it. Now, about the club.” He slides a contract in front of him. “I’ll buy it. Same price. Same terms.”

I don’t look at the paperwork, nor am I surprised by his interest. He’s all about money and power; the club is those things and more. “Fifty percent or nothing,” I counter.

He arches his brow. “Fifty percent?”

“I’m staying in, but I can’t run the day-to-day operation. That would be on you.”

“Sixty-forty, then.”

“As long as the sixty is me,” I retort.

He smirks. “Fine. Fifty-five, forty-five.”

I shake my head.

He grimaces but agrees, “Fifty fifty.”

A knock sounds on the door and it opens. Tiger and I are on our feet in a flash as Blake enters, crackling with energy.

“Ava escaped,” he announces.

“When?” I demand.

“About an hour ago.”

“How?”

“She had to have had help,” Blake says, “but we don’t know who yet.”

“Where’s Ryan?” I ask.

“Missing too,” he informs us, “and so is the kid from the coffee shop who was turning evidence on her. We’re worried he’s in danger.”

I curse. “I knew the bastard was involved.”

“Any witnesses?” Tiger asks.

Blake’s lips thin. “Not a single one, and it was in broad daylight.”

“What about Sara and Chris?” I ask, thinking of Ava’s potential targets.

“At his godparents’ in Sonoma,” Blake replies. “We’re going to pick them up and get them to a secure location.”

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