I cover his hand where it covers mine, and the fact that he lets me means so much more than it had before. “It’s called being human,” I say. “It’s the curse and blessing we all face.”

He looks at me. “I used to believe I managed it better than others.”

“You do. And you’re demonstrating that by actually being in the moment.” I remind him of his own words. “What we deny owns us. You can’t control what you don’t first own and face. You simply delay the moment it owns you.” I tilt my head to study him. “You weren’t like this when I went to answer the door to let Jacob and Kara in. Did they overlook something that set you off?”

“It’s a general frustration that I’m paying so damn many people to get no answers. That, and the kid woke up before Luke got to the hospital. The police are questioning him, and I have no idea what’s being said.”

I think of the extra phone he keeps so guarded, and that, along with the sense of helplessness I read from him right now, feeds my worry that whoever he talks to on those calls is trouble waiting to happen. “Mark, about that—”

“It’s late,” he says, glancing down at his watch, and I have this sense of a door shutting. “Thirty minutes until treatment. We need to go inside.”

I don’t push, because he’s right. But I think Jacob is right, too. Mark’s navigating dark and stormy waters, and I’m either going to pull him out, or drown with him. I don’t know which.

* * *

Jacob and Kara frame us as we stop at the security desk by the private elevators and sign in. A few moments later we crowd into the rather small elevator. “Stay in the waiting room,” Mark orders them when we exit onto the treatment floor. “I don’t want my mother any more upset than she already is.”

“I’ll stand guard downstairs by the security desk,” Jacob says, “and let Kara hang out up here.”

Kara glances from me to Mark. “If you have to tell your parents I’m here, you can always say that Crystal and I bonded when Walker took over Riptide, and I’m working a job here at the hospital. It’s not a lie; I am. It just happens to be you. And if Crystal and I have coffee together, that will reinforce it.”

Mark grimaces but I nod. “Your mother is always after me to have a social life, so this is perfect. It works.”

He cuts Kara one of those steely gray stares. “I’m warning you. Don’t go feeding her with Blake’s bullshit, which I assume is yours as well. You won’t like the results.” His fingers close on my elbow and he starts walking out. “Let’s get to the room.”

“That was rude,” I say.

“It was honest, sweetheart,” he says. “I don’t give bullshit and I don’t take it.”

“Stop viewing me as some wimpy toddler who can’t make up her own mind and needs to be protected from her own shadow.”

“Wimpy toddler?”

He dares to look amused, and I’m pretty sure the sound that follows from me is a growl.

“Did you just growl at me?”

“Yes. I did.”

He leans in. “Save that for when we get home.”

I swallow hard on the word “home” and promise myself not to read more into our arrangement than a temporary sharing of a lot of naked moments. “Only if you save that attitude you just had for never.”

“I can’t promise that.”

“Then I can’t promise a growl later.”

His eyes darken, lips quirking slightly. “I can. Count on it, Ms. Smith. But right now, my mother needs us both. She doesn’t know there’s something between us, though, so we need to think through how and when to tell her I’m living with you. I don’t want her to think that if something goes wrong between us, she loses you. I don’t want you to think you lose her, either.”

“There you two are!”

Once again, Mark’s father has managed to appear at a pivotal moment in a conversation between us. We turn to find him approaching with a tray of coffee.

“One of the nurses went to Starbucks. I ordered everyone’s favorites.” He glances at Mark. “Your mom’s pretty eager to see you this morning.” He enters the hospital room and Mark is unmoving, staring after him.

Reading his apprehension, I reach up and rest my hand on his arm. “She needs you. She probably regrets last night.” I motion to the door with my head. “Come on. You kept me up all night—I need that coffee.”

He inhales, his broad chest expanding beneath his suit jacket. “Coffee it is.” His hand goes to my back and he guides me forward.

I enter the room to find Dana eagerly watching the door, her eyes touching me and then going beyond to settle on Mark. Giving her the moment she’s obviously seeking with her son, I go to where Steven has set the coffee tray on a rolling hospital table.

“White mocha for you, right?” he asks.

“Good memory,” I say, smiling, always charmed by the way he treats me like family.

He lifts a cup and glances at the writing. “Plain latte with an extra shot. This one is Mark’s. Dana didn’t want anything.”

I crinkle my nose. “Plain is just so . . . plain.”

He laughs. “Yes, it is.” He holds it out. “Can you hand it to him?”

“Of course.” I accept the cup, but hesitate as I note the dark circles under his eyes. “How are you?”

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones Inside Out Romance
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