“This is where New York and San Francisco differ. That city has real neighborhoods with standalone homes.”

“Which is what you have?”


“Yes. I have a home in the Nob Hill area, which I thought gave me plenty of property and privacy. But the downside of a standalone home is that it becomes a prison if the press decides to surround you.” I set my sandwich down, the memories of that night and my date with the bottle of scotch cutting through my appetite. My elbows go to my knees and I don’t look at her as I add, “Even if it weren’t for the press, I couldn’t be there now—any more than I could have taken you there.”

“I know,” she surprises me by saying.

I cast her a questioning glance. “You know?”

“She lived with you, so being there has to remind you of her. And I’m sure that taking me there would have come with guilt. It probably always will.”

“No. Not always.”

She doesn’t look convinced, but doesn’t push me. “What are you going to do about Allure? You can’t leave it closed forever.”

“I put it on the market. If I choose to go back to San Francisco, I can do shows at random venues and still make a killing.”

“What you deny owns you, Mark,” she says, again repeating the words I’d spoken to her, and I wonder why they connect with her as deeply as they obviously do.

I had these kinds of questions with Rebecca, but I never let myself ask them. I won’t make that mistake with Crystal.

“What owns you, Crystal?” I ask, trying to understand.

Shadows flicker in her eyes as she replies, “The wrong things, but I’m trying to fix that.”

“What wrong things?”

“If I could just spit them out on demand, they wouldn’t own me, now, would they?”

“Truer words have never been spoken.” I hesitate, fighting the urge to push her for more. She needs to see inside my hell to allow me into hers. And I don’t want her inside it. I want her far, far away.

“About Paris—” I begin.

“No,” she snaps. “I’m not going to Paris or anywhere else. End of discussion.”

“It would be—”

“No.”

“You’re ridiculously stubborn.”

“You’re worse.”

“I’m trying to keep you safe.”

“Then let me eat, before I pass out.”

My jaw sets. “I’m not done talking about this.”

“I’m sure you’re not.” She reaches for her sandwich. “But right now, I want to eat and talk business. Since you’re all about ninety percent of our problems being from ten percent of our customers, I have a few to discuss with you.”

“I’m all ears.”

“Laura Benedict, for one.”

“The name isn’t familiar.”

“She’s a repeat customer who has tried to take advantage of us in your mother’s absence.”

“What are the dollars and cents?”

“In five years, she’s never amounted to more than thirty thousand in profit for us.”

“And she’s a bitch?”

“A bitch with PMS year-round.”

“What do you want to do about her?”

“Put her in her place, with the understanding that I can drop her if I have to.”

“I saw the financials. Do what you have to do, but don’t let me get blindsided. Let me know in advance, in case she comes to me.”

“My one hesitation is her big mouth. She’ll tell the world we parted ways and come up with some dramatization worthy of Netflix.”

“If we let everyone with a big mouth intimidate us, we’ll both be walking around with no balls.”

She starts laughing and our moods lighten. “I swear, sometimes I think your mother has a removable set she installs at work.”

“My father’s,” I joke.

“Mark,” she chides. “I can’t believe you said that!”

“If I’m alpha, then he’s beta. You must see that.”

“He’s the head coach of a baseball team. That’s pretty alpha.”

“And he coaches like a beta—which is why my mother is always trying to be his alpha.”

“Right.” She sighs. “That brings me to an important topic.”

“My father’s balls or my mother’s?”

She laughs. “Stop. No. Well, maybe your mother’s. She’s decided to go on a little outing tonight, and your father needs us to tag along.”

“What happened to her barely being able to get out of bed?”

“You,” she says. “Having you here means everything to her.”

“Oh hell,” I say, my hands settling on my thighs. “I know a suck-up, prep-me-for-what’s-coming-speech when I hear one. What is she up to?”

“Your father is having pitching practice tonight, and she wants to go watch.”

I shake my head firmly. “No. We are not going to the practice field. She’s exhausted, and it’s freezing outside.”

“It’s indoors. They’ve installed some sort of net inside the gym.”

“She still doesn’t need to be there.”

“She doesn’t have treatment on Saturday or Sunday. She can rest.”

“No.” I reach for my phone. “I’m telling her no.”

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