“You’re quitting, Crystal.”

“No, I’m not. It solves nothing. Dad, I’m in love with Mark, and if the plan is to hurt him, I’ll still be a target anywhere I go.”


He’s silent for several heavy beats. “You love him.”

I think of the way he sat down on the floor with me, the way he tried to get me to read Rebecca’s journals to bare all to me, and my answer is easy. “Yes. I love him.”

“You’ve never said that about a man before.”

“I’ve never felt it before.” Then I laugh. “And he can pay his own bills.”

He doesn’t laugh. “I want to meet him. Bring him tomorrow night.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t come. I don’t want to bring attention to you.”

“You’re coming, and you’re bringing Mark Compton. I have plenty of security. I’m going to send someone over to you.”

“I have security people all around me, Dad. Mark won’t let me breathe without someone supervising.”

“Who’s handling the security procedures?”

“Walker Security.”

“I’ve heard of Walker. I’ll be checking them out quite thoroughly.”

We chat for a few more minutes and end the call. I was wrong when I said Mark and I were two bulls after the same red flag. He and my father have become the two bulls, and I’m the red flag.

I exit the conference room to find Mark leaning against the wall, and I walk over to him. “He wants us to come tomorrow night. It’s not going to be an easy meeting.”

He wraps his arm around me and holds me close. “I can handle it. Royce called. They used Ryan’s credit card to track him to his hotel.”

“Can they legally do that?”

“I really don’t care. He was at the Omni hotel, a few blocks from here.”

“Where you were staying before you moved in with me?”

“He knew it was my place of choice. Royce pulled strings to pick him up for questioning about Corey. They’ll build the case for the money laundering while he’s there.”

“Good. No word on Ava or the mercenary?”

“Jimenez is his name, and no. No word on either of them, but we have a lot of people working on this. Now that Ryan is being arrested, we suspect the police will be brought in on the entire plot.”

“Which is what?”

“Hurting me. And I can only assume that’s because I applied pressure to expose Ryan as being involved in Rebecca’s death. I think we should go home and stay in tonight. I’m telling my father I need to stay away from NYU until this is over.” He strokes my hair. “Ryan’s in custody. They’re going to make him talk.”

His voice is strong and confident, but I sense his unease. I know he’s worried there’s a whole lot more trouble headed our way.

* * *

Much later in the evening, Mark and I have eaten the sandwiches we picked up on the way to the apartment and managed to end up naked in the bedroom, where he is tender and loving and . . . vanilla.

By the time we’re headed to vanilla event number three, my fear is confirmed. Because of who he decided I was last night, he can’t be himself, and we can’t be the us that we were becoming. Frustrated, even hurt by the way the past is invading my future, I shove him to his back and straddle him. “I wish I’d never told you about my claustrophobia. Stop treating me like I’m breakable.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

I let out a growl. “You don’t wear naïveté any better than you do vanilla. Either fuck me like Mr. Compton, or don’t fuck me at all.” I climb off him and scramble across the bed, barely managing to escape his reach.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he calls out as I dart away.

“To take a bubble bath. It’s what we delicate girls do.” I try to slam the bathroom door but he’s there in a blink, catching it before it shuts. “This is why I don’t tell people I’m claustrophobic, or that I was a foster kid, Mark. They feel sorry for me, or like you, they think I’m fragile.”

“You think that I think you’re fragile?” He sets me on the bathroom counter. “You want to be pushed, I’ll happily push you, sweetheart. I was just letting your pretty pink backside recover.” He steps back and leans on the wall, his shaft thick, his eyes hot with challenge. “Touch yourself. I want to see you make yourself come.”

My bravado fades instantly and I feel the blood leave my face. Mark closes the gap between us, grasping the counter on either side of my hips. “Remember what I said, Ms. Smith. I say. You do.”

“Yes, but I’ve never . . . Not for someone else.”

“Because delicate girls never do.”

Before I can make a smart remark, he takes my hand and presses it between my thighs, using my fingers to explore the swollen, slick seam of my body. The effect is pure erotic thrill, proof that his skills at seduction and control are revved to full throttle. And he’s not done.

Claiming my free hand, he molds it to my breast, kneading and stroking my nipple. The double assault of pleasure has me on sensory overload, and my lashes lower with the impact. “No,” he orders roughly. “Eyes open. I want to see you, and you to see me.”

My eyes snap open, and he wastes no time pushing for another reaction. He, we, stroke deeper into the slick heat of my sex, pressing two of my fingers inside my body. I gasp, and not just from the nerve endings we awaken. From the intensely intimate experience of touching myself with him. But even more so, it’s the possessive demand in his eyes that says if he wants to own me, he can and will. Pleasure blossoms, thick and sweet, a burn in my belly, a tingling sensation in my nipples. Inhibitions fade, and when his hands leave my hands, settling on my knees, I continue to touch myself, letting him watch. Letting myself go where I would go if I were alone. And I like the tension in his body, the hunger in his expression, that says maybe, just maybe, I own him, too. He leans in and kisses my neck, trailing his lips downward, until he’s licking my fingers where they cover my breast, his teeth scraping the nipple. It pushes me over the edge and into orgasm with barely a warning; I stiffen as my body clenches and spills over into spasms.

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