This time, his eyes narrow. “Are you alone?”

“What the hell does that have to do with it?”


“That answers my question. Our security post is room 1010. Meet me there.” Shutting down the conversation, he starts down the hallway and it’s with supreme willpower that I don’t jerk him back and demand that he speak now.

Fingers curling into fists, I turn back to the room, fighting an out-of-character urge to punch the wall. Practiced control is the only thing that allows me to maintain a calm exterior as I shut the door and press two hands on the wall, my head dipping between my shoulders. This is the news that I’ve been waiting for—the answer to where Rebecca has been all these months, when I’d thought she’d turned her back on me and us. It’s not the answer that I want, but it’s the answer I’ve long expected.

She’s gone. Never to return. Every confused, uncertain emotion that I’ve had about her pushes to the surface, and threatens to erupt. A vise closes around my chest and throat and my eyes burn.

“Is everything okay?”

The sound of Crystal’s voice radiates through me, mixing with the pain and heartache tearing me up inside, and twists me further into knots. I have no idea what insanity made me invite her inside my hell for an up-close-and-personal look, but I did, and I have to face it and her. Inhaling, I push off the wall and find her standing at the end of the hallway, in my shirt, her long blond hair a tangled mess from my fingers and our fucking.

My shirt. That’s what stands out to me, and I know why giving it to her had affected me as it had. It’s more than a shirt. It’s an invitation into my life I’ve offered her, even before this night ever happened, with my actions. It’s why I’d tried so damn hard to find a reason not to call her tonight. Not to need her. Crystal is slipping under my once iron-clad surface where I’ve let no one in for ten years. Except Rebecca. Who will never know she did, because I never admitted it. But I was going to, damn it. When she got back. And that’s why she returned—and why she’s dead.

Acid forms in my throat and I suddenly have that coming out of my own skin sensation again. Needing any space I can get, I walk past Crystal without a word or a look and stop at the closet, yanking open the door to grab a black sweater from my suitcase and pull it over my head. The white noise in my head is the danger zone, a place that I once lived in for hellish months on end. I use an old trick I learned to control it, counting silently in my head. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. All the while, I dig for clean socks, then shut the suitcase. Six. Seven.

Socks in hand, I move to the couch to put on my shoes, aware of Crystal standing on the other side of the coffee table. Eight. Nine. I bend over and pay far too much attention to my shoes than they need.

“Mark,” she says softly, compelling me to look up.

Ten. Eleven. I flick her a barely there look by design, unsure if my composure is securely in place. “The press found us,” I tell her. “I’ll make sure someone escorts you when you leave the hotel, but I’d suggest you hide out here until Monday or until we find another location for you.”

“There’s more,” she insists. “What’s happening?”

I stand up. “Nothing I’ve been told, but I’m headed to a meeting with my security team. I doubt I’ll be long.”

She studies me a long moment, before hugging herself and offering me a choppy nod. “I’ll look over the file while you’re gone.”

“Yes. Good. Do that.” I walk past her again and I can almost feel her need to reach out and touch me. And I not only want her to, but need her to.

But she doesn’t.

She does what she thinks I want, what I should want. She lets me go.

Crystal

I can’t watch him leave and I’m not sure why. I stand frozen in place, and I jump when the door slams shut. The Mark Compton who is a master of control would never let that door slam. He is not okay—not even close. I’m not so sure I am, either, right now.

I walk to the couch and sit down, curling my arms in front of me, the scent of him, all warm and wickedly male, clinging to the shirt and my skin. The torment I’d seen in his eyes in the hallway flashes in my mind, haunting me. Torment for a woman he’d loved, who I’m sure he’s about to hear he’s lost. And though I have feelings for Mark, I want him to find out that she’s alive. I want her back here and with him, safe and alive. . . . But I’m sure she’s not, and I can’t leave him to face it alone. Yet staying means I’ll likely end up crushed.

To occupy my mind, I pull the work that Mark’s left on the table forward. I set the folder to my left and open the accordion file, pulling out all the documents inside, which seem to include a contract of some sort and—I frown—a journal. Odd, but maybe Sara or someone took notes in it. Quickly, I scan the legal documents, shocked to see that he’s selling the club, even more shocked to see the astronomical figure he’s netting for it. Surely he didn’t mean for me to see this, did he? I shove it back into the accordion file and open the journal, then start to read.

Can love and submission co-exist? I wish I had that answer. Or maybe I don’t. Maybe it’s an answer that I won’t like. For now, I feel lost in a space somewhere between the two. If I were to believe him, there is no space to be lost inside. Love, he claims, is a façade, so love isn’t what I feel at all. But I believe it’s real and it’s what I feel for him. I still hope that one day he will, too.

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