His ruddy complexion turns white. “No. No, that’s not what I want.”

“You stated to me that you were concerned about your auction items selling poorly next weekend,” I said, knowing we garner a 20 percent higher price than any other auction house. “That was your excuse for being here. I’m removing it as a reason for your return.”

“It’s natural to be concerned, with all of this scandal attached to Riptide. My job doesn’t erase my rights as a customer.”

“For the record,” Crystal says, stepping to my side, “our attendance for next Saturday is up fifteen percent. The scandal seems to be good for business.”

“Or the equivalent to rubbernecking.” Then he seems to realize what he’s said, holding up his hands. “Not that I’m unwilling to take the risk. I simply want reassurances.”

“Your reassurance is Ms. Smith filling out your release paperwork, and returning your items to you in the same condition in which we received them.” I glance at Crystal. “Please ensure that happens before Mr. Murphy leaves, so that a return visit won’t be necessary.”

“Of course.”

About to head to my office, I realize he’s going to create a story out of this visit, no matter what I say or do—and it won’t be the one I want told. “One more thing, Mr. Murphy,” I say, aware that numerous staff members are within hearing range. “You came here for a story.”

“No, that wasn’t—”

“You came for a story,” I state firmly. “Don’t make this worse by lying. I’m going to give you your story. A woman I cared very much for is dead.” I draw in a breath and look at Crystal, a deep ache forming in my gut as I amend my words. “A woman I loved was murdered. Her name was Rebecca Mason, and she worked for me at my gallery Allure in San Francisco. The woman who killed Rebecca escaped and is on the run, but not before she leaked lies to the press about me to try to clear her name. On top of that, my mother is battling cancer. And during all of this we have to battle people like you, who see us as nothing but headlines and top Google positions. Still, we’ve managed to maintain an exceptional business at exemplary standards, thanks to an incredibly dedicated staff.”

“What about the counterfeit art?” he demands. “That’s not exemplary. Ricco Alvarez says you framed him.”

“His lies to try to clear his own name are inconsequential and irrelevant. The facts will speak for themselves in court. Ricco Alvarez was obsessed with Rebecca to the point of being a near stalker. He tried to ruin me and my family because he wanted her and couldn’t have her.”

“At the expense of his career and his wealth? I find that hard to believe.”

“And you find me creating that scandal, and risking my family business, more believable? You’ve known my family for at least five years. You can’t believe that. But report what you want. Just know this: If you, or anyone else, slanders my family or Riptide in any way, I will sue for far more than the story was worth.”

I turn to leave, and Mr. Murphy calls, “Wait.”

I don’t turn.

“You’re right. I’ve known Dana for years. I’ll let you review the segment before I run it.”

I don’t turn or thank him. We both know he didn’t suddenly grow honor, and we both know I wasn’t bluffing about a lawsuit. I’ve won this round with the press. It’s a small victory in a war with too many defeats—and that has to change.

Feeling that dark, dangerous edge come over me again, I swiftly return to my office and shut the door. Adrenaline rushes through me, and my head is spinning—and it’s not just about having told the world what I never told Rebecca. It’s about the past, the present. About everything.

I squat down, elbows on my knees, and I’m sweating, the memories pounding at my brain, loss and pain eating away at me. Who was I kidding, all those years I claimed I was in control of everything around me? I was never in control. The past was always with me. It’s what has driven everything. It’s why I made the decisions I did with Rebecca.

Images flash in my mind and I lower my throbbing head to my hands. The hellish past comes at me like a hard-swung baseball bat that makes me groan with the impact.

* * *

“Stop, Tabitha,” I order, as she rushes ahead of me in the deserted parking lot of the remote NYU campus property, my voice carrying a little too loudly in the silent, windless night. “It’s too dark for you to run ahead of me.”

But she doesn’t listen, disappearing inside the open gates of the baseball practice field—but then, what else is new? She’s like my mother, hardheaded and impossible. I trot down the pavement to catch up to her, rounding the corner of the concrete sidewalk that runs in front of the bleachers. She’s walking backward, her long blond hair glistening silver in the moonlight, her soft feminine laugh a sexy tease despite my irritation.

“I’m right here, Marky baby,” she taunts, holding out her arms, the shadows licking at the deep cleavage of her pink T-shirt that I plan to have off of her in about sixty seconds. “Come get me.” She darts to the left and disappears into the darkness of the bleachers, as fearless as she is frustrating.

I growl low in my throat and decide that sneaking out here for an adventurous fuck was a bad idea. We should have thrown her damn roommate out of her dorm room for an hour. I decide to sneak up on her, heading toward the end of the bleachers to cut around the back, when a sound stops me in my tracks. A scrape of a shoe? Then . . . a male voice? I scan the playing field, but it’s too dark to see anything, and an eerie sensation crawls over my skin. Jogging forward, I disappear between the bleachers to find Tabitha—and stop dead in my tracks.

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones Inside Out Romance
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