We arrive at my father’s penthouse suite overlooking Central Park at seven o’clock on the dot. “Should I ring the bell?” Mark asks, after I stare at it for a full sixty seconds.
I turn to him. “He’s going to be protective.”
He caresses my cheek. “A good father should be.”
The door opens and I jerk around guiltily, as if Mark and I are teenagers who just got caught kissing. My father and stepmother stand in the entryway, him looking his normal tall, elegant self in gray dress slacks and a white button-down, his salt-and-pepper hair slicked back. My stepmother, Anna, looks pretty and conservative in a long blue floral skirt with a light blue silk blouse, her raven hair tied at the nape.
“Mom and Dad,” I begin, “this is—”
“Mark Compton,” my father supplies, offering his hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Mark shakes his hand. “Not all good, I’m sure.”
My father tightens his grip and holds on, pinning Mark in a direct stare. “She’s in danger, and I don’t like it.”
Mark doesn’t miss a beat. “Neither do I, Mr. Smith, and I’d send her out of the country if she’d go.”
I groan and move forward to hug Anna, whispering, “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”
She laughs and I follow her down the short hallway, which is floored with the same gorgeous black African wood that runs through the house. Pausing as we reach the contemporary living room furnished in soft blues, I glance behind me. Mark and my father are huddled together, speaking softly.
Sighing, I turn back to Anna. “They’re either going to throttle each other, or plot my deportation.”
Evidently not worried about either possibility, she motions me forward. “Leave them to work it out. The boys are hanging out in the kitchen, ready to pounce on the lasagna when I take it out of the oven. It should be ready in about thirty minutes. Just enough time for everyone to chat and have a drink before we start.”
“The boys?” I tease at the reference to my two older brothers. “Daniel and Scottie are both in their thirties.”
“Scottie is barely thirty and Daniel is only thirty-two. That’s young.”
“Then I’m a baby.”
She wraps her arm around me. “Exactly,” she says, proving how much she feeds the overbearing macho male attitudes in this house. “That’s why they all want to take care of you.”
In the kitchen I find Daniel and Scottie leaning on the island that’s the centerpiece of the gray and white tiled room. They’d done exactly the same thing when I’d cooked for them years before.
“My two Twinkies,” I tease, noting they’re both wearing navy blue, Daniel in a sweater and Scottie in a button-down.
They straighten to their freakishly tall heights to greet me, both with wavy brown hair and green eyes. “We might look alike,” Daniel comments, “but I got all the brains.”
Scottie grimaces. “People who have to claim their own brilliance rarely possess it, and after what you put on her cake, I’d say ‘stupid’ fits. She’s going to make you pay.” He points to the giant chocolate cake sitting in the center of the island.
Anna holds her hand up and shakes her head. “I’ve already yelled.” She heads toward the oven. “Loudly,” she calls over her shoulder.
“Now I’m afraid to look.” I move to the island and grimace as I read, “Soon to be an Old Maid.”
I give my brothers a scathing look. “And you both wonder why I won’t work for you? I’d be taunted half the time, and bossed around the rest.”
“Hey now,” Scottie objects, holding up his hands. “I had nothing to do with this.”
“Oh, please. Daniel just thought of it first. And for both of your information, not every woman needs a man to take care of her. I hope you both end up with a strong woman who teaches you a lesson or ten.”
“I think I’m at about ten.”
The sound of Mark’s voice makes me turn. While his comment is a compliment, there’s an edge of possessiveness to his tone and the way his hand settles on my lower back. Like he doesn’t like something in the exchange. And of course he doesn’t. He’s as protective as they are.
“And apparently,” my father adds, “we won’t be convincing Crystal to come to work for us anytime soon. I’ve just been told that Riptide profits are up substantially under her management.”
“Little sis is kicking some ass,” Scottie says, always the positive one of the group, though still dominant. He just comes at people with a coaxing hand, while Daniel and my father give them a shove.
Daniel focuses a hard stare on Mark. “You must be the notorious media magnet.”
Mark takes the punch on the chin. “Not by choice. I prefer privacy for me and those around me, but it’s not been easy to manage these past few weeks.”
“Sex scandals tend to create problems, I imagine,” Daniel replies dryly, and it’s all I can do not to shake him.
If the flex of Mark’s fingers on my back is any indication, he feels the same. “Under the circumstances,” he says, his tone low and tight, “I really don’t give a damn about sex scandals. I care about the murdering bitch who created them and is now on the loose.”
The room is stunned into silence by the bold rebuttal, but bold and honest is everything my father has always preached. Scottie grins. “Mark Compton, I’m Scottie Smith. The younger, more forward-thinking brother. I hope that they catch the bitch in question—and as for the press, I hear ya, man. They’re like a one-night stand that just won’t go away.”