She places a container in front of me. “Cashew chicken.”

“How do you know it’s mine?” I ask, trying to get her to look at me again.


Her lashes lift. “You just seem like a cashew chicken kind of guy.”

“I told her,” my mother informs me. “She gets the same thing.”

“So you’re a cashew chicken kind of girl?” I ask.

“And her birthday is next week, too,” my mother adds. “November twenty-third. One day after yours.”

“But you’re about a decade older than me,” Crystal says, giving my father his food.

“Older and wiser.”

She snatches a drink from in front of me and passes it to my father, a combative energy between us. “Younger and more versatile.”

My father roars out laughter. “I do believe our son has met his match, Dana.”

“That’s why I hired her,” Dana says as Crystal kicks off her shoes and walks to my mother’s side. “She doesn’t stand down to anyone except me.”

Crystal sets a tray over my mother’s lap and then places her food and a soda on it. “Now eat, and I want nothing left. You need to gain weight.”

I laugh and settle into my chair. “I guess you’re right. She backs down to no one.”

Crystal returns to the table and it’s all I can do not to watch every move she makes. Once she’s across from me again, opening her plasticware, I say, “Versatile, but unwilling to try new things.”

“Old and incapable of thinking outside of the same box.”

I want to drag her back into the library and fuck her right now. She glares a warning at me over the way I’m looking at her, but my father and mother are absorbed in jabbering away, and I ignore her. “We need to finish our talk.”

“We did. Or I did. I’m done, Mark Compton. The End.”

She means it this time.

Seven

Mark . . .

“What do you think, son?”

“About?” I ask, jerking my gaze to my father.

“How about coming and watching some of the pitchers throw this weekend with me? Dana says she and Crystal are having a girls’ pampering day on Sunday.”

I arch a brow at Crystal. “Oh?” The more I see her closeness to my mother, the more curious I am about her mother.

“We have a stylist coming in for hair and nails,” she says, her lips curving as she looks at my mother. “It’s going to be fun.”

“I can’t wait,” my mother says, dragging her hand down her hair. “I think it’ll make me feel a little more human.”

“So what do you say, Marky boy?” my father presses. “We on for some baseball?”

“You have practice on Sunday?”

“A pitching camp. I really could use your input.”

Fighting the feeling that I can’t face this part of my past right now, my lips manage a curve and I say, “Sunday it is, then.”

The light in my father’s eyes is my reward. “We can go by that burger joint by the practice field we used to hang out at. Good memories.”

He’s right. They were, and I don’t want to let one bad piece of my history destroy some of the special moments I’ve shared with my father.

“I was thinking,” my mother says, and her solemn tone draws all of our gazes as she sighs and starts again. “I was thinking about Rebecca, and how young she was and how young you were when life got all twisted. Things change so quickly. Life is here and gone, and—”

The jab to my gut plunges deep, and I lower my eyes, fighting the emotions by beginning to count, leaving room for nothing else. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. When my gaze lifts it collides with Crystal’s, and I see the question in her eyes. She wants to know what my mother is talking about . . . and part of me wants that one person whom I can actually tell.

“Everything happens for a reason,” my father tells my mother. “We just don’t know what it is until later. But I’m betting that you’ll inspire a lot of people to fight when this is over.”

Everything happens for a reason. He’d said that to me way back then, too. I was certain that my future had been ripped away from me as a lesson. It made me become stronger for everyone else around me, to ensure no one else got hurt. But what reason is there in Rebecca dying? How can there ever be a reason for that?

I push to my feet. “I’m going to get ice. Anyone else?” All eyes have shifted to me, and they all call bullshit, “you don’t want ice, you want space.” “No?” I ask. “Okay then.” I leave the room wondering how “Okay then” even got into my damn vocabulary.

Walking down the hall and past a large living area, I pause in the center of the massive kitchen, leaning on the black rectangular island counter. My head drops toward my chest and I start counting to keep myself out of my own head, so I can walk back into that bedroom. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.

“Mark.”

I squeeze my eyes shut as Crystal’s voice stirs an odd sensation in my chest that somehow eases the ache in my gut. Desire rockets through me, and I tell myself it’s about fucking and control. I need it, and she’s my safe zone outside of the club.

“Are you okay?” she asks when I do not speak.

When our gazes meet the jolt is as unwelcome as it is intense. She feels it, too. I see it in the slight widening of her eyes, the way she curls her fingers into her palms on the counter across from me.

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