And I don’t question why, deep down, I’d already known. I love her.

“How long have you had the nightmares?” I ask.


“Since foster care.”

It’s easy to figure out that something of profound impact happened to her then. “You freaked out over the cuff even though your hands were free. I need to know, Crystal. Did the bondage trigger the nightmare?”

She hugs herself tightly. “Neither. The nightmare triggered my claustrophobia.”

“What? Fuck, woman. I just cuffed you and spanked you.”

“And I liked it. You are not my monster, and you never will be. You’re why I was smiling when I fell asleep.”

She’s deflecting, and I can’t let her. “How long have you had the claustrophobia, and how bad is it?”

“Since I was a teen. I was in a haunted house with my brothers, and the small space made me hyperventilate so badly, they thought I was having a heart attack.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because I want to get over it, and these nightmares,” she blurts out. “I want it all gone.”

I drag her to me. “Then let me help you. Whatever’s haunting you, we’ll fight it together. But I have to know what it is to help.”

“Like I know your secrets?”

“We need to sit down over a bottle of scotch, if that’s what it takes, and get both of our pasts on the table. We’re going to fight together.”

“Until you’re gone. And you will be, and I can’t manage like that. Like you said, I own my monsters. I have to deal with them.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“Until you’re gone,” she repeats, as if I haven’t spoken.

Something in her eyes, in her tone, slams me with the realization of just how alone she was in her youth—and how easily she must believe I really will leave.

“I’m falling in love with you, Crystal. I’m not going to hurt you.”

A stunned look slides over her delicate features. “What? No. No. You just said that you don’t know how you feel.”

I silently curse those words, lacing my fingers in her hair. “When I said I didn’t know what I was feeling, or if it was about you or her, that was about denial, fear, and guilt. And in case you didn’t know, I master denial far better than I do you.

“I’m not falling in love. I am in love. I love you, Crystal Smith.” My gut clenches with the fear I’ve spent a decade hiding from. “I love you, and it scares the hell out of me that I might lose you.”

She covers my hands with hers. “You won’t. And I don’t want to lose you, either. I couldn’t have done those cuffs with someone else, but everything is different with you. I trust you. And I love you, Mark Compton.”

My mouth comes down on hers, a hot claiming of my woman. My woman. Not my submissive. She moans, wrapping her arms around my neck, and I cup her backside, lifting her, urging her legs around my waist.

I carry her to the bedroom and lay her down on the mattress, me on top of her. “Whatever hurt you, we’ll deal with it. And nothing, nothing, is ever going to hurt you again. You have my word.”

Twenty

Mark . . .

I wake Saturday morning to Crystal curled against my side, and the feeling is surreal. For a half hour I don’t move, just holding her and replaying the night before. We’d ordered takeout from her favorite Italian place and watched reruns of Seinfeld, and her amusement and her pleasure from my liking it led to a lot of laughing, fucking, and talking about nothing serious.

My plan to wake Crystal at nine, to be at work by ten, is destroyed by a series of 8:30 a.m. calls from Blake and Jacob that entail coordinating an eleven o’clock meeting at Riptide. I’m finally free of the conversations and about to join Crystal in the shower when my cell buzzes again. This time it’s Tiger ranting about being squeezed out at the Long Island PD thanks to Detective Grant, whom he proceeds to call every four-letter word in existence.

“I might have some proof for you today that I couldn’t have been involved,” I say cautiously, not wanting Crystal to find out about Ava and Jimenez by overhearing me tell someone else.

“What proof?”

“I’ll let you know.”

“Then I’m not counting on it.” He adds, “But I’ll get my meeting today—and by the time Detective Grant gets back to San Francisco, he’ll be lucky if he has a job.”

I set my phone down thinking I can catch the last of Crystal’s shower, just as she exits the bathroom wearing a black fitted dress, tights, and her hair already sleekly styled. Glancing at the clock, I see that it’s nine fifteen. “This morning didn’t go as planned.”

Crystal’s gaze slides up and down my naked body and she lets out a regretful sigh. “No. It did not.” She bites her lip and inspects my thickening cock, which gets even thicker while she watches.

“Go make coffee, woman,” I growl. “I have a meeting you’re about to make me miss.”

She laughs and leaves, pausing at the closet for her shoes, giving me a moment to appreciate the way the dress hugs her heart-shaped backside. A cold shower it is, I decide, and enter the bathroom.

As I grab a towel off the rack afterward, my gaze lands on her pink robe, jolting me with the memory of Crystal sitting on the floor trembling. Cursing, I step to the bathroom sink, my mind replaying our conversation last night. I don’t want to lose you, either, she’d said. I wasn’t afraid of the cuffs because I trust you. I don’t deserve her trust. I should have seen her hesitation over the cuffs as a problem, and I don’t believe for an instant that they didn’t contribute to her nightmare.

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