My mind tracks back to Ava’s insane attack on Sara and my encounter with Ryan. Crystal. I should never have brought her here. “I want Crystal on a plane in the next hour,” I say, already walking toward the door.
“Anticipated,” Blake calls out. “I have a plane on standby and a car at the back door. It’s up to you to convince her to leave.”
“I suggest you and your gun follow me. She’s leaving in the next sixty seconds.” Exiting into the hallway, I walk to the next door and knock.
“Who is it?” she calls out.
“Me,” I say. “Open up.”
Blake and Tiger join us in the hallway and Crystal’s door opens, her long blond hair in a silky mass around her shoulders, her black velvet sweat suit hugging every curve, her eyes bloodshot, like she’s cried, or not slept, or both. “Ava escaped,” I announce. “We’re leaving.” I grab her hand and start walking with her in tow. I hear Blake and Tiger fall into step behind us.
She gasps and stumbles, but quickly catches up. “When? How? Is she here?”
“Stairwell,” Blake orders. “Jacob’s at the bottom waiting for us.”
I drag her into the stairwell, aware of her soft, tiny hand in mine, of how fragile she is despite her tough attitude. How easily she could be gone, too.
“Mark,” she pleads, catching up to me. “What is going on?”
“Ava, Ryan, and the kid who was going to turn evidence on Ava are all missing.” I glance at her. “Everyone who could be a target needs to be out of the line of fire.”
We reach the bottom level and the door opens to reveal Jacob. Crystal steps in front of me and presses her hands to my chest, scorching me with the touch. “What about Allure?”
My hands come down on her wrists and I intend to remove her hands, but I can’t seem to make myself. “I don’t give a damn about Allure. I won’t put you in harm’s way.” I grip her shoulders and turn her, giving her no chance to argue, steamrolling her out the door.
The instant we’re in the lobby, I latch onto her hand again, and our group forms a wall around her. Sixty seconds later, we pile in a black sedan, Crystal’s leg pressed to mine, Blake on her other side, Jacob and Tiger in the front seats. Crystal turns to me, blocking them out as best she can. “I don’t want to leave.”
“Someone has to be with my family and Riptide, and I can’t leave. I keep trying but I can’t.”
She inhales and lets it out, nodding, sinking back against the cushions. For the rest of the ride, Blake makes phone calls with zero results. Jacob pulls us into a private terminal where a plane is waiting with the entry open.
Blake and Jacob exit the car and I open the door to do the same, but Crystal grabs my arm. “Wait, please.”
Blake pokes his head into the car again before she can speak. “I’ve been told our plane needs to be cleared for another private flight. We need Crystal on board now.” He hesitates. “And on another subject, the police found Ryan. He’s with Amanda in Los Angeles. He seems to be getting cozy with her family.”
“The Amanda who works for Allure?” Crystal asks.
“Yes,” I confirm grimly.
“What does she have to do with any of this?”
“Nothing. He’s using her as an alibi.” Then I look at Blake. “We both know this doesn’t mean he didn’t arrange Ava’s escape. Look for a money trail that leads to him.”
“Already on it,” Blake assures me before disappearing outside.
I follow him, shackling Crystal’s wrist and leading her to the plane, urging her toward a short, narrow stairwell leading to the cabin. She whirls around to face me, her hands settling on my arms. “Why can’t you leave with me? Get away from Ava with me. Your family needs you in New York.”
“I’m not leaving until things are more stable here.”
“Don’t do anything crazy, Mark. Don’t be a vigilante. Let the law do its job. Please.”
“Crazy isn’t my specialty.”
“Neither is letting somoene else control anything you can. You aren’t thinking clearly—even if you think you are.” She presses a hand to her face and drops it, and I don’t miss the way it trembles. “I don’t want to leave you.”
Not that she doesn’t want to leave. She doesn’t want to leave me.
My resolve to keep a distance from her once and for all dissolves instantly. My hands come down on either side of her face and I kiss her, a deep, fast, passionate kiss, before my eyes meet hers and I say, “Get on the damn plane and get out of town so I know you’re safe.”
I release her and walk to the car, climbing inside. I’ve just undone everything I tried to do last night. In fact, I’m certain I’ve just invited her back into my life—though I never truly pushed her away, and I can’t let her stay here. The reasons are many, too many, starting with Ava and including a past that has proven that anything outside a conventional Master and submissive contract doesn’t work for me.
Which leaves me with only one option, the one certain to send her running for the hills. I’ll offer her a contract sure to infuriate her, one that’s all about my control. A control that’s certain to destroy whatever the hell this thing between us is.