* * *
I shake myself before the full image comes into view. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. I’m not doing this. I’m not going there. I’ve only been to this place once in ten years, and I remember it well. The phone call. The club. Chris Merit walking into my office just in time to witness my pathetic meltdown, and me foolishly telling him everything about that night. When I woke up the next day, I buried the memory along with my lack of control.
But buried isn’t gone, I’m realizing now. Tabitha is, though—and I swore I’d never go through that kind of pain again. But I am. And I did. And now there is Crystal.
I’m losing my mind, all over the place, bouncing here and there. I’m so far from being in control, I don’t even know myself.
My phone starts ringing, and it takes several moments to realize it’s the disposable one. I yank it from my pocket, and holy hell, my hand is shaking. I am so out of my own skin, I don’t even know who I am. I hit the Answer button and hear, “I trust you received the file?”
“I did,” I confirm, straightening to press my back against the door. “I’m taking care of payment.” I will myself back to the present to focus on this critical conversation. “I have reason to believe there may be a threat to my family,” I say. “I need to know if they’ve been spotted again.”
My jaw tightens. “Make sure they aren’t here in New York, and make sure today.”
“You think they followed you?”
“Yes. I do.”
“I’ll work on it and get back to you.”
“No later than tonight. I need an update, even if it’s to tell me you have nothing new.”
“Understood. But I do have a development on Ryan Kilmer. He might have the cash to hire Jimenez after all.”
“What does that mean?”
“I checked out those odd real estate transactions you caught when reviewing his file. You were right. Real estate fraud is the name of his game, and he’s done plenty of it. And he looks to have sold a number of expensive properties to some pretty nasty people, which I’m pretty sure can be tied to money laundering.”
“I’m gathering the data. I’ll have it to you in the next few days. Do you want to reconsider the plan to destroy him, or let this information do it for us?”
“Get me the details to review and then I’ll decide. Right now, go find Ava and Jimenez. I’ll be expecting your call.” I push to my feet, stashing the phone back in my pocket. By the time I’m behind the desk I’ve pulled out my regular cell phone, and I leave a message for my attorney to ensure he knows what’s happened with Corey since he’s been in the air. Next, I punch the auto-dial.
“Luke Walker,” he answers on the second ring.
“Mark Compton. What do you have for me?”
“The kid’s in a coma and the police have shut me out, but I’m staying here. His parents are flying in from San Francisco tonight. I want to talk to them and make sure they influence their son to be truthful.”
“You heard about the threat sent to Crystal?”
“I did, and we’re on it.”
“I want to meet with you and your brothers.”
“Tomorrow, after those lab results are in.” We work out the details and end the call.
However I look at it, I’m caught in a web of danger. And now someone has targeted Crystal as a way to get to me.
Mark . . .
I’m weeding through the financials for Riptide, impressed by how well it’s performed under Crystal’s care, when a knock sounds on my door. It opens and Crystal pops her head inside.
“Hey,” she says.
I toss my pen on my desk and lean back. “Hey,” I find myself saying. She has softened me in ways no one else could, and despite everything that happened earlier, there’s no tension or awkwardness between us. No walls. No games. We really are the most honest thing I’ve ever had in my life.
She smiles and steps inside, lifting two bags in her hands and nudging the door shut with her hip. “It’s four o’clock and Beverly tells me neither of us has eaten.”
I glance at the time on my cell phone, shocked to find I’ve been sitting for hours. “I had no idea how late it had gotten. I was caught up in the numbers. Riptide looks good on paper. You’ve done well, Ms. Smith. Far better than I expected under the circumstances.”
“A compliment,” she says, setting the bags of food on my desk. “And here I thought you managed by intimidation.”
“More like an iron fist.”
“And a rulebook the size of an encyclopedia,” she teases.
“I don’t deny the rulebook. But I look out for my employees, and I reward them when they do well.”
“So I’m learning,” she replies, her eyes softening with her voice.
Our eyes meet and I can almost feel the simmering heat, which has existed since the day we met, expanding. “There’s a bonus in your future,” I say.
And while my mind has drifted into erotic territory, now isn’t the time for that. I won’t downplay what she’s done professionally, and even personally, for my family. And money isn’t her motivation, which makes her generous dedication to Riptide all the more compelling.
“So,” she says, her softly painted red lips curving, “what does the rulebook say about sharing a meal with an employee, Mr. Compton?”