My mind flashes with an image of Rebecca sitting on the edge of my bathtub back home in San Francisco, spreading her favorite rose-scented lotion on her body. No. It had been our bathtub. She’d lived with me, though I know she never really felt she belonged there. Everything had still been about the contract. The fact that it had an end date and that I’d insisted she keep her apartment was always there between us. I wanted to take care of her, and I wanted her in my life. What I hadn’t wanted was to fall in love, and so I didn’t.

I scrub a hand over the tension in the back of my neck. I was too shut off emotionally. I thought if I didn’t love her, neither of us could get hurt.

“Damn it,” I murmur, glancing up to find Crystal standing in the doorway, a deliciously naked distraction that I need right now.

“Either you have a vibrator in your pants, or your phone is on silent and ringing,” she announces. “If it’s a vibrator, I can do that myself.” She turns and leaves me with a view of the perfect backside that I’m definitely going to spank sooner rather than later.

“A vibrator or my phone,” I repeat, and I actually smile again.

Going into the empty bedroom, I catch a glimpse of her exiting into the living room area. I assume she’s going after her robe, which, considering I don’t have another condom, is probably a damn good idea. I grab my pants off the floor, dig out my phone, and find a text from Jacob. Headed to room for some shuteye. Kara Walker is on duty. 212-555-7789.

She must be Blake’s wife, hell-bent on stopping me from acting on my claim of vengeance. I clamp down on my anger. Though I can never right my past wrongs, I can do the right thing now. That means avenging Rebecca and making sure no one else gets hurt. As long as Ava is out there somewhere, I can’t be sure either of those two things will happen. And I won’t allow anyone to get in my way.

Ten

Mark . . .

Seeking out Crystal, I pass through her modern art deco–style living area, with white furniture and red and white abstract paintings by a famous artist whose work I’d never have on my walls. While brilliantly talented, he’s an absolute prick. Following the sound of music and singing, I head to an open archway. Stepping inside I find a compact, square kitchen of rich navy blues and grays. Behind the cooktop on one end of the stainless steel island is Crystal, wearing her pink silk robe as expected. She’s holding a spatula, completely focused on whatever’s in the skillet while singing “You Shook Me All Night Long” by AC/DC.

I lean on the door frame, entertained by the adorable expressions she’s making while absolutely rocking out. Seconds tick by and still she doesn’t look up. “You’re cooking at this hour?”

She jumps and looks at me, holding her fist to her chest for a moment. “You scared me.” She laughs, and the smile that follows is genuine and infectious, much like my mother’s. Picking up her phone, she punches a button to turn off the music. “I guess it was a little louder than I realized. I didn’t even hear you come in. And yes, I’m cooking. Apparently threats of spankings make me hungry.”

“Especially if you do it all night long,” I tease, mimicking the lyrics, intrigued by her willingness to be so direct about a topic that makes her uncomfortable.

Her cheeks flush a rosy color. “If the lyrics were ‘you took me in four minutes,’ I’d have been humming even if I was alone.”

“I think I should be the one to hum to that.” I walk to the seat across the counter from her and sit down. “Pancakes?”

“Really good pancakes with chocolate chips. You do like chocolate, right?”

“I do. Some might even say I have a sweet tooth.”

“I’m not asking what that means.”

“Really,” I say. “I have a sweet tooth. Candy, cake, you name it. I force myself to savor it only on the holidays.”

“I have one, too, but I’m not that controlled about it,” she says. “I treat myself once a week, and lately that’s been a box of my favorite cereal on Saturday night about midnight. I don’t have time to cook.”

“Because you’re obviously a workaholic,” I say, wondering if being adopted makes her feel she always has to prove her worth. I’m not adopted and I feel that pressure.

“But I always cook on the holidays for my family. It’s a tradition now. I grew up in a house full of men with busy schedules. If I didn’t cook, no one did, so everyone is used to me making certain things.”

“You were adopted into a family of all men?”

“That’s right.” She fills two plates with two pancakes each and sets one of them in front of me, one in front of the empty seat next to me. “Angela Smith was killed in a car accident the week before my adoption was final.” She turns to the fridge behind her.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

“It seems impossible, doesn’t it?” She sets two cans of Diet Sprite on the counter. “Sorry, that’s all I have in the house. I haven’t been home much.”

“This is fine,” I say, popping the top and getting back on topic. “So Smith was grieving and in shock, and still went ahead with your adoption?”

She rounds the island and sits down next to me. “Yes. Looking back as an adult I know how amazing that is, but Angela had been a foster child like I was—only she was never adopted. They’d been poor when they had my brothers, and now wanted to help someone in need. And to them, that meant rescuing an older child who had limited chances to get adopted.” Her voice tightens. “I think . . . I think going ahead with the adoption was my father’s way of keeping Angela alive. I think he sees her in me.”


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