“I might just buy a place here,” I tell her, instead of admitting that I’m a magnet for trouble. “No matter what, I’ll be close.” I lean back on my haunches. “Reba will be here to pick you up any second. Let’s get you in the chair.”

Ms. Smith takes that as her cue to stand, but loses her balance. Instinctively, I reach out and catch her arm before she ends up sprawled on the floor. She grabs my arm in return, and what I feel between us is too present and powerful to dismiss. I have failed to end what I started.


Crystal . . .

As I stare into Mark’s eyes, I try to remember the anger I’d felt last night—and this morning. He’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and right now he’s the man I’d been falling for, the man who cares for his family with such deep love that he tore down the walls I’d erected early in life.

He stands and pulls me up with him before his hands, those big, wonderful hands, slip away, leaving me aching for their return. Fifteen minutes ago, I would have sworn that I never wanted him to touch me again.

“Thank you,” I say, and while he only nods, there’s appreciation in his eyes for my being here for him and his family.

We break eye contact to find his parents staring at us. If Mark notices, he doesn’t act like it, merely reaching for his mother’s arm. “Let’s get you up before Reba has my hide for delaying her schedule.”

As if she were waiting to be announced, Reba enters the room with an “Are we ready?”

“We are,” Mark assures her as Dana settles into the chair. “Right, Mother?”

“No,” his mother retorts. “But I’ll go.”

It hurts my heart to hear this vibrant, powerful woman sound like a punished child.

“Grumble, grumble,” Reba teases. “Boy, am I ready for you to order me around again so I can tell you I’m not your employee.” She gestures toward me. “That’s what she said this past weekend, too.”

I smile. “Only I am her employee, so I do have to take orders.”

“Actually,” Mark amends too softly, “you’re mine now.”

My gaze jerks to his intense gray one, and heat flushes my skin at the possessiveness there. Unbidden, the memory of him saying “I’ll own you” is in my mind. My chin lifts rebelliously, delivering the message “No one owns me, and that will never change, most especially not for you.”

His father moves between us, giving me a blessed chance to breathe. “I’ll push my wife,” he tells Reba. “We’ll talk baseball on the way to the treatment room, and she’ll tell me everything I’m doing wrong with the team.”

“It’s the pitching,” Dana immediately says, catching on to the bone he’s thrown her. “You have no one with the level head that Mark had on the mound.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Steven replies, pushing her toward the door. “So you’ve told me for ten years—and I might remind you that I’ve won four championships?”

No one with the level head that Mark had on the mound. I stare at the doorway as they disappear into the hallway, remembering a similar comment on another occasion. It’s hard to imagine Mark playing a game of any sort, though competitive and focused fits him to a T.

“What are you doing here?” Mark snaps, shocking me back into the moment and the sudden realization that we’re very much alone.

The tormented look in his eyes is gone; the steely gray from the night before is back. I’m baffled, unsure what is real and what’s a façade. But I’ve dealt with powerful, controlling men all my life, and I know when they’re fishing for a certain reaction, whatever it might be—and he’s not going to get it.

Clamping down on the hurt and simmering anger, I reply, “I stopped by McDonald’s to bring McMuffins for the nurses. While I was here, I figured I’d stop in and say hi.”

“No one likes a smartass, Ms. Smith.”

“Better a smartass than an asshole—Mr. Compton. I’ve been here before all of her treatments.”

“You should have called me. I need to know the business is in order while I’m here by her side. Who’s running Riptide now?”

My simmering anger begins to burn in my belly. “You barely returned my calls for months on end, when I was often desperate for guidance—and now you’re questioning how things are being run? For your information, Mr. Compton, I taught myself, and taught myself well. When I come here to support Dana and Steven, I arrive at Riptide at six in the morning to ensure the day is organized and nothing slips through the cracks.” I draw a hard-earned breath. “If this is about my refusal to sign—”

“It’s not.” His words are more of a reprimand than a reply. “However, a contract would have established boundaries we now need to otherwise address, for a productive working relationship.”

It’s all I can do not to recoil as if slapped. The reaction is too intense; a flash of a long-lost memory I don’t want to remember. Somehow he’s hit an emotional spot I never want touched. Ever.

“Boundaries?” I ask, my voice radiating emotion despite myself. “How’s this for boundaries? Your father called me this morning because he hadn’t heard from you, and your mother was refusing treatment. I went to their apartment, and we double-teamed her to get her here.”

I shake my head. “You truly excel at being an asshole, Mark Compton. But you’re the asshole your mother needs. You give her strength. You make her fight. And if that means you have to revel in your assholeness, so be it. I’ll tolerate you for her sake.”

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