“Tired. But I bet Dana that I’d beat you at tic-tac-toe this morning, so hand off that cup and let’s get to it.”

I laugh at what has become a six-month war between us. “You’re on.” Turning, I plan to hand Mark his coffee, and find him squatted down by Dana’s chair, his head dipped low, her hand on his face as she whispers something to him. He lifts his head and looks at her, nodding and then squeezing her hand. “I love you,” he says, and my heart squeezes at the rawness of the emotion in his eyes and roughing up his voice.

“I love you, too, son,” Dana whispers.

Mark’s gaze lifts abruptly, meeting mine, and he does nothing to mask the heartache in his eyes.

I lift the cup. “A plain latte?”

“Yes,” he says, pushing to his feet and stepping toward me.

I hand him his cup, the brush of our fingers sending a shiver down my spine. And judging from the glint of arrogance in Mark’s eyes, my reaction doesn’t go unnoticed. Determined to put him back in his place, I say, “Plain and strong. I guess that’s what a macho man like yourself needs to feel extra macho.”

“Oh, how you have him figured out,” Dana chimes in, her laughter filling the room.

Mark’s expression flickers with a moment of pure joy at her reaction, but he doesn’t miss a beat in his reply. “I prefer my coffee like I do my women—without the sugarcoating.”

If I had any doubt that comment was meant with naughty intentions, the totally inappropriate way he’s looking at me, like he wants to lick the proverbial sugar off me, douses it. And I have an equally inappropriate response of being warm and tingly all over.

“I’ll tell you what’s not sugarcoated,” his father inserts, and aware that Dana can see my reaction to her son, I whirl around and say, “Your wife when she talks baseball with you.”

He snorts. “Isn’t that the truth. But not what I had in mind.” He sets a pad of paper and two pencils on the table next to my coffee. “Game on.”

“Tell me he’s not trying to get you to play tic-tac-toe,” Mark says.

“You just hate when I’m right, Steven,” Dana says in reply to the previous exchange, while I nod my confirmation at Mark.

“I just let you think you’re right,” he counters, eyeing me and tapping the table. “Come here, Crystal Smith. Today is the day I kick your butt.”

“Remember our bet,” Dana says in a singsongy voice I haven’t heard her taunt him with in months. “If she wins—”

“I remember,” Steven says quickly.

Dana looks at Mark. “Crystal always kicks his butt.”

Mark arches a brow at me and I shrug, moving closer to his father, lowering my voice. “What’s on the line? Should I throw the game?”

“No,” he says indignantly. “And if I think you do, I won’t respect you in the morning.”

“But you’d win the bet.”

“Hey,” Dana says, sounding remarkably energetic. “Whose side are you on?”

“I’m going to win,” Steven insists. “I figured out how you beat me. My new pitcher showed me your trick.”

Mark settles onto the arm of his mother’s chair. “I assume you know he does this to all prospective pitchers.”

“I’ve heard,” I say.

“They need brains,” his father counters, “and not the kind that recites Shakespeare. They need to be able to process and problem-solve under pressure.”

“This isn’t much pressure,” I say, placing my X on the grid he’s drawn.

“You’re here by choice,” Mark points out. “My father tells them if they lose, then their dreams end with the tic-tac-toe of his pencil.”

“That’s kind of cruel,” I say, watching as Steven makes a poor choice for his move.

Mark laughs. “No wonder you like her, Mother. She’s just like you. She holds nothing back.”

“I find it real and honest,” Dana says, and my pencil stills as Mark’s words play in my head: the only honest thing in my life. Somehow I manage a laugh. “My brothers just call it bitchy.” I glance at Steven and feel a little sorry for him as I draw a line and say, “Tic-tac-toe.”

“Impossible,” he grumbles, as Mark and Dana burst into laughter. Steven draws another game grid. “Again.”

I sigh and we play again, with the same outcome.

He scrubs his head and then motions to Mark. “Come play, son.”

Mark stands up and shakes his head. “You’re just looking for an ego boost.”

I claim his spot on the arm of Dana’s chair and ask her, “Ego boost?”

“Mark hardly ever beats his father. It’s like he has some sort of mental block. I bet they played fifty games last Christmas, and Mark only won seven or eight.”

“Nine,” Mark calls over his shoulder, sounding casual and accepting of his losses.

The square isn’t fitting in the circle here. Something isn’t right, an observation I feel tenfold when I watch Mark lose two games in a row.

“Are we ready?” Reba calls as she rolls a wheelchair into the room, and my chest tightens when I see her red scrubs.

“Ready to get it over with,” Dana says. “I want to trade in my wheels for high heels.”

As Mark and Steven join us, I remind her, “At least you’re done for the weekend.”

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones Inside Out Romance
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