“I can live with that arrangement.”

“I’m sure you can. I’ll transfer the money later tonight.”


“Then you’ll have answers tomorrow. This might be a good time to think about what you want me to do with Ava when I have her.”

“Find her. That’s what matters right now.” I end the call and tuck the disposable phone in my pocket to retrieve my regular cell, punching in Blake Walker’s number.

“I have a reliable lead that Ava is alive and well,” I say when he answers. “What have you heard?”

“From whom?” he asks, ignoring my question.

“I’m not willing to disclose that information.”

There’s a short pause. “You’re going after her on your own,” he says. It’s not a question. “You still want vengeance.”

“I’m keeping my ear to the ground to protect my family.”

“Then give me your contact’s info, and let me protect them for you.”

“I pay you to protect my family—and so does San Francisco law enforcement, since they’ve now contracted you as well. And I trust your people, Blake. But if your family could be in danger, would you wait for someone else to protect them?”

Considering he’d confessed to me his own vigilante quest to kill a man who’d murdered someone he loved, we both know the answer. A beat passes. Then two. “Just promise me you’ll give me a chance to act on anything you find out before you do.”

“I promise to be as transparent as you,” I say, making it clear that I’m aware he’s dodged my question about what he knows about Ava. “And you make sure your staff is vigilant about watching for unusual threats.”

“We were in airport security right after 9/11. We know how to look for the unusual. But I need an assurance that you won’t act—”

“Just do your job, Blake, and make sure Jacob pays special attention to Crystal Smith.”

“I’ll call him when we hang up.”

“Good. Do that.” There’s a knock on the door. “I need to go.”

I end the call as my father pokes his head in the door enough for me to see his blue and red team jersey. “Everything okay?” he asks.

“Fine,” I say, stashing the phone in my pocket and walking in his direction, wondering if Ms. Smith said something to make him think otherwise. “Just a quick business call.”

“Your mother’s asking for you,” he says, and I sense nothing beneath the comment. “The Chinese food was dropped off downstairs. Jacob is bringing it up.” The doorbell rings. “That’ll be it. We’re eating in our bedroom. Your mother doesn’t want to try to go to the table. She’s afraid it will wear her out.”

He disappears, and I face what is inevitable. A cozy dinner with me, my parents, and Ms. Smith, whom I just told I want to fuck. I’m treating her like a damn yo-yo, which is wrong and I have to fix it. Based on how upset she was when she left, perhaps I already have. Calculated anger was one thing, but that was pain—the very thing she’s tried to help me get past.

“Mark!” my father calls, and I scrub the roughness of new stubble, joining him and Jacob in the hallway. “Get the rest, will you, son?” my father asks, his arms loaded down with bags.

“Got it,” I say as he heads toward the bedroom. “You heard that Ms. Smith changed her mind about using us for security?” I ask Jacob softly.

“I did. Royce Walker was going to talk to her tomorrow if she didn’t change her mind. We dodged a bullet on that one. He never asks. He tells you as he rolls over you. And Ms. Smith doesn’t do well with force.”

“No, she doesn’t,” I say, “which is why her sudden change of heart seems a bit too easy. What reason did she give you for agreeing?”

“She said it was to protect you.”

“How so?”

“She says if you keep intentionally baiting her into arguments, you’ll need protection from her, so it’s only fair you should pay for it.”

I laugh. “She knew you’d repeat that. So tell me: Who’s baiting who?”

Jacob lifts his hands. “I plead the Fifth, considering I have to protect you both. I’ll leave it to you two to wrestle out your differences.”

“Hmm. That’s a visual I can’t quite get my mind around.”

“Creative visuals, a lethal weapon when I want to be one, and I grill a great steak. My specialties, at your service. Can I get you anything right now?”

“I’ll settle for Chinese right now.”

“Have it your way,” he says, turning to leave.

I back up and kick the door shut, and the security system automatically locks it. I walk the short distance to one of the two master bedrooms and find my parents on the massive oak bed while Crystal stands at the small conference table my mother uses in place of a desk. As she removes food from a bag, Crystal’s gaze lifts and finds mine and the detachment in her stare speaks volumes. I’m right. I hurt her, and I did it in some deep, cutting way I don’t fully understand.

Quick to look away, she finishes emptying the bag as I cross the room to join her. “I hope you’re going to eat tonight, Mother.”

“It sure smells good,” she says. “The first thing that has in a long time.”

“Excellent,” I say. “I believe I have the drinks.” I halt directly across from Ms. Smith and set my bag on one of the two chairs.

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