Crystal steps around the corner of the short hallway, stopping just beyond the rounded archways, a shadow in the darkness that I’ve allowed to consume the room—the way my guilt consumes me. She’s a curvy silhouette in the dark room, but I can make out her pencil-cut skirt, her long blond hair draping her shoulders, the flickering light of the silenced television catching here and there on her pale, perfect skin.

“Hey,” she says softly, and her voice is electric, shocking my nerve endings.

“‘Hey’?” I ask, sounding as cynical as I feel. “What kind of greeting is ‘hey’?”

“My kind,” she replies, crossing the room to stop in front of the coffee table. “The only kind I know how to give.”

It’s a typical Crystal answer. Direct. Uncensored. Honest. And damn it, I think that’s what draws me to her. The honesty. The absence of games that she won’t allow me to play, games I just don’t have the energy to give a damn about right now. We fall into silence, the air thickening between us, that current of awareness that’s always there sharper, edgier now. The television flickers behind her, casting her in a warm glow that guides my unapologetic downward skim over her slender hips to her stocking feet.

“I left my shoes at the door,” she answers, drawing my gaze upward, over her black silk blouse and long blond hair. The only blonde that I’ve wanted in ten years. “My dad made us do it when I was growing up. It’s a habit.” She holds up the key that I’d left for her at the front desk with a note to meet me in my room after she settled in hers. “So the press is stalking you pretty badly?”

“That’s an understatement.” But it’s not why I’m here. It’s the memories, not the reporters, that I wish I could avoid. “I had to have some covert help to rent me the room next door in an effort to stay low profile until I leave for New York on, I hope, Monday.” I tap the folder that I have sitting on the coffee table. “I need to go over the gallery business affairs with you tonight. I can’t risk being unavailable and you being unprepared.” I glance at the TV, and the news is still playing the same scene, as if it’s locked on a repeating loop that gives me nothing when I crave something.

Anything. I’ll take anything.

“Anything new?” Crystal asks, and somehow she’s crossed the room to claim the seat beside me without my realizing it. It rattles me that I’m this disoriented and unaware. So does the damn floral scent that she’s wearing.

Inhaling, I force myself to concentrate on her question. Any news? No, there is not any fucking news. “I’ve been told to expect arrests by Monday.” A detail that I both dread and wish for. I need this to be over. No. I need it to be over with Rebecca alive—and I know that’s not going to happen.

“Oh,” she says softly, sounding a bit awkward as she adds, “Then they’ve found something for sure.”

“Yes,” I agree, finishing off the scotch in my glass. “They’ve found something.”

I don’t look at her. I didn’t want to bring her here tonight. Not when I’m so unlike my normal self—-and yet, somehow, I needed her here.

“I’m glad you took me up on my offer to run the gallery so you can be with your family,” she says as I reach for the bottle of scotch. “Your mother is going to be happy.”

I pause mid-pour and set down the bottle to look at her. “She’s dying. She’s not happy.”

Her hand comes down on my arm, and I feel the kick in my blood, the burn under my skin. “She’s not going to die,” she vows vehemently, her fingers digging into my arm. She adds in a hissed whisper, “Don’t say she’s going to die.”

I don’t remove her hand, even though I let no one touch me without permission. “You really care about my mother.”

“Yes,” she whispers, her hand loosening and falling away. “Sorry. I just—I don’t—she can’t and . . . I can’t think any other way.”

I feel the absence like a cold blast in the warm spot it had once been, and I want it back. I hand her my glass. “Have a drink.”

She ignores the glass and glances at the bottle I’ve managed to do substantial damage to in the hour that I’ve been waiting for her. “Was that bottle full when you started?”

My cock throbs with the soft rasp of her voice and how much that I want her when I have a long list of reasons not to touch her, most important among them her attachment to my mother. I consume my scotch before I answer with, “Yes. It was full. I don’t make a habit of drinking, but tonight’s an exception.” I refill my glass and offer it to her again. “Your turn.”

She crosses her arms in front of what I know to be gorgeous, high, full breasts with perky little pink nipples that I shouldn’t be thinking about having in my mouth, but I am. “I don’t think drinking with you is a good idea, Mark.”

My lips quirk. “You’re thinking too much. Scotch will set you free.”

“So the answer’s losing control?”

I set the drink on her knee, my gaze sweeping the exposed area where her skirt has risen a few inches up her thigh. “Isn’t that what you told me at the club?” I ask, my eyes lifting to hers.

“Yes, but that was me—not something I expect uttered from your lips. Who are you? That doesn’t sound like the Mark Compton I know.”

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