“I’m no flower, sweetheart.”

My stomach flutters with the unexpected endearment.

“In fact,” he continues, “you’ve all but called me the same conceited jerk as your ex.”

A knock sounds on the door and, unwilling to let this end yet, I step so close that I can feel his body heat. “You can be,” I agree, “but the difference between him and you is that he really was a jerk. You use arrogance and control to hide the real you. But I’ve seen you. I know you.”

He stares down at me for several beats before his hand closes around the back of my neck and he crushes my mouth to his in a long, deep kiss. Then he says, “In a way, no one else has. No one. You know that, right?”

“Yes,” I whisper. “And you know I’d never betray that trust.”

The air shifts between us, and I can almost feel the bonds between us weaving tighter. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have told you what I did in the shower, nor would I be standing here.” He leans in to kiss me again, his mouth almost to mine when his phone rings, and another knock sounds on the door.

We both groan. “I’ll get the door so you can get your call,” I say.

He sighs and releases me, reaching into his pocket to remove his phone. “Are you in Long Island yet?” I hear him ask before I turn down the hallway.

As I reach the door another knock sounds, and I ask, “Who is it?”

“Jacob.”

I unlock the door to discover that beside him is a pretty brunette with warm brown eyes who is dressed in black slacks and a black silk blouse. She extends her hand to me. “Hi, Crystal. I’m Kara Walker.”

I take her hand and, being someone who has instant vibes with people, I already like her. “Hi, Kara,” I say, stepping to the side to allow them to enter. The door shut, I ask, “Is Kara taking over for you today, Jacob?”

I don’t miss the slight flex of his jaw as he answers. “No,” he says. “We’re both escorting you to the hospital.”

Suddenly, Mark’s need to stay here to “protect me” hits home. “We need two escorts?”

“Better to be safe,” Jacob says noncommittally.

I cross my arms. “What don’t I know that I should?”

“The question is more like, what don’t we know that we should,” Kara replies, keeping her voice low, clearly to keep Mark from overhearing.

“That’s exactly right.”

We all turn at the sound of his voice to find him standing at the end of the hallway, the look on his handsome face as irritated as his tone is as he adds, “Stop worrying about an angry claim I made about vengeance after hearing Rebecca was dead. Start worrying about where the fuck Ava is. Answer that question, and this all ends. Then we’d have justice, and no need for two bodyguards.”

* * *

Mark and I ride to the hospital in the back of the Escalade, with Kara and Jacob in the front. Without the prior day’s snow to contend with, it’s a short twenty-minute drive. The silence in the vehicle is uncomfortable, Mark’s reprimand of Jacob and Kara sitting with us like an extra companion. Yet one thing stands out for me. The way Mark’s knee rests against mine, and the words he told me: You’re the one thing keeping me grounded. He’s on edge, and I’m guessing it’s about that phone call he took.

Jacob parks the truck and he and Kara open their doors. When Mark reaches for his, I grab his arm. “I need to talk to you alone for a second.”

His eyes narrow on mine for a moment before he calls out to Jacob, “We need a minute.”

Jacob and Kara shut their doors and seal us inside. Immediately, I turn to Mark and settle my hand on his leg. “What’s wrong?”

His attention goes to my hand on his leg, lingering there before I’m fixed in an unreadable gray stare. “Were you aware that I don’t allow people to touch me?”

Confused, I stutter, “W-what?”

“I don’t allow people to touch me. Except you.” He covers my hand with his own. “That first evening you picked me up at the airport, you kept touching me, and I let you. I didn’t know why then, and I don’t know why now.”

I’m still confused. “You mean no one after Rebecca went missing, right? She obviously touched you—as did previous partners.”

“I never let her touch me freely. It was part of the Master/submissive roles we played.”

Emotion wells in my throat at the certainty that to Mark, BDSM is far more than the pleasure and games. It’s a disconnect, a withdrawal from everyone but his parents. But then again, he lives in another state. Isn’t that a withdrawal, too?

“You know you’re inviting me to ask you why,” I say cautiously.

“Playing the Master role helps me control what I feel, and when I feel it. Except, as I said, with you.”

“I just happened to be in the right place when you needed someone.”

“I’ve tried to tell myself that, but there were other people just as present, and other ways I could have dealt with all of this. I kept returning to you. I keep returning to you.”

“Is that what’s bothering you right now? The way that I’ve seen more than you want me to see?”

“No. It’s about me having the control I need to ensure my mother doesn’t see too much of what I’m worried about.” His lashes lower and he inhales. “I don’t know what the fuck is the matter with me.”

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