“Don’t tell me you ‘got nothing.’ She’s here in New York. Find her. And there’s a hundred thousand dollars in it for you if you get me conclusive evidence of who’s behind Jimenez’s involvement.” I punch the End button.

“Care to tell me who that was, and who Jimenez is?” Jacob asks, eyeing me from the rearview mirror.


“Not yet.” My hand covers Crystal’s, and I’m not letting go.

Eighteen

Mark . . .

The ride to Crystal’s is dark and tremulous. I am not where I need to be mentally; I’m inside my own head, guilt driving me nearly insane. The emotions I’ve spent ten years denying are shredding me into pieces I can’t hold together. I’m on the edge of the present and the past, weaving between control and no control at all.

When Jacob stops at the front door we exit into the bitter cold, me still holding on to Crystal’s hand. After he makes sure we enter safely, we continue across the lobby to the elevators. Crystal doesn’t push me to speak and I don’t look at her, willing myself to get right in my head before we’re alone.

Inside the elevator I lean on the wall and enclose Crystal in my arms, feeling one dominant need: to control everything around her, including her, to ensure that nothing hurts her. Though this is the same flawed thinking I’ve used for ten years, it’s what I know, and who I am.

“Mark,” Crystal whispers softly, and I meet her gaze, mine unguarded. I let her see the dark need in me, the possessiveness. I want her to know what’s coming. I want her to see this is a part of me that won’t go away. It’s how I steady myself when my world is spinning.

Our floor number dings and I cup her head, kissing her fast and hard, then release her to close my hand around hers and lead her out of the car, down the hall, and to her apartment. Our apartment right now, and it’s remarkably easy for me to think about spending every day with this woman. I won’t lose her. I won’t.

She digs her keys from her coat pocket and her hand shakes. I grab the keys. “I’m making you nervous.” Her lashes lower and I curse. “Of course I am. I’m making me nervous.”

Her gaze lifts. “You aren’t making me nervous. It’s the unknown. You’re on edge, and you need things I don’t know how to give you. Simple fucking is all I know.”

“Do you want to know more?”

Her hand goes to my arm. “I want to know you.”

It’s everything I wouldn’t have wanted in the past. Now, the part of me that wants to chain her to a bed, spank her, and make her submit shrinks into the shadows—but it’s not gone. I slip my hand to her hip and pull her close. “Then the answer is yes.”

“Yes,” she repeats.

“Then I’ll take care of the rest.” I unlock the door and push it open.

She inhales, a sign I’m coming to know as her means of calming herself and gaining control. She holds the air in for a moment, and on the exhaled breath she walks inside.

I pursue her, reaching for that comfortable part of me that’s more primal beast than man; a place where I can reclaim control by showing Crystal the pleasure of letting it go. Safety is letting me have control. Tabitha ran off. Rebecca left. I didn’t have control then, and I don’t now. I didn’t intentionally bring Crystal into this. She was already inside my family and my work, and I can’t simply send her away to keep her safe. So I need control. I have to have it.

Crystal hesitates in the hallway, and there’s a spike of unease around her that with anyone else, I wouldn’t pause for. I’d order them forward, intentionally making them walk in front of me. But this is Crystal. The nervousness radiating off her rushes into me, and I’m instantly snapped back to man, not beast. That easily, I’m reminded that she is like no other woman I’ve ever known. And apparently, no matter how on edge, I am no version of myself that I was before her.

My hand settles on her back, gently urging her forward, and I’m a tightly paced step behind her. The curtains are open, the moon and stars illuminating the room and making artificial light unnecessary. We stop in the bedroom beside the bed. She faces me and I her, her back to the mattress. Again I find myself acting outside my Master instincts. Instead of ordering her to do something intensely erotic, I cave to the urge to caress the shadows sculpting her high cheeks, her luminous skin, and I hope the touch offers her a sense of security as I take her into a new world. My world, where I’m done denying that I want her.

I cup her face and rest my forehead on hers. Damn it to hell. Control is the answer. It’s the answer. Focus. One. Two. Three. Four. Five and fucking six. “Reach into my right coat pocket,” I tell her, my voice remarkably calm considering the chaos in my head.

She does. “The bag,” she whispers, holding it between us.

I laugh at the way she says it. Though it’s tight and unfamiliar, it’s still a laugh, something I’ve never done during any Master/submissive game.

She glances up at me and I say, “It’s not a bomb, sweetheart.”

“That’s up for debate after I see what’s inside.”

I cover the bag and her hand with mine. “You can always say no to this, now or later.”

She studies me closely. “Who’s more on edge? You or me?”

“Me.” I shrug out of my coat and then my jacket, tossing them on the bed.

“I know you didn’t have Corey beaten.”

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