“Scottie!” Anna exclaims from behind him. “That’s inappropriate.”

Scottie grins and my father chuckles. “Well, he is right, Anna.” My father lifts his chin at Mark. “I’m sure Mark here agrees.”


“I plead the Fifth.” He glances at my father. “You’re going to get me in trouble, Hank.”

“Smart man you’ve got there, Crystal,” Anna says, glaring at my father before she turns to open the refrigerator.

I’m having a happy few moments, absorbing Mark being on a first-name basis with my father in record-breaking time, when Daniel pushes off the island and grumpily announces, “I think I’ll go have a drink.” He cuts behind us and disappears.

Scottie sighs. “He had a bad day in the stock market. I’ll go toss that drink down his throat.” He takes off after Daniel, and my father glances at Mark. “Welcome to my home, in all its colorful glory.”

Mark gives him an understanding look. “You don’t know colorful until you spend a few hours with my mother.”

Anna joins us. “Crystal has told us so much about Dana. How are her cancer treatments going?”

“Better, now that Mark is here.” I wrap my arm around him. “He’s totally turned her spirits around.”

Mark drapes an arm around my shoulder. “I want you both to know that Crystal has quite possibly kept my mother alive. Your daughter is special, and so is what she’s done for my family.”

My father’s eyes meet mine. “I know it is—and I know she is. Many years ago, she kept me alive.”

My heart squeezes and I go around the counter to hug my father. He buries his face in my hair and whispers, “I’m so damn proud of you.”

“Thank you, Daddy.”

He leans back, his expression going from soft to hard as he releases me and focuses on Mark. “Hurt her, Compton, and I’ll hurt you.”

Approval fills Mark’s eyes, and it pleases me, as I know it will my father. “I’d expect nothing less.”

It’s a perfect answer, but my father quickly makes it known that he is not going to let Mark off that easily. “I still have questions.”

I pat my father’s chest. “Of course you do. You always have questions.” I flick a look between the two men. “I’ll let you two work it out.”

I move to the counter and face Anna. “What can I do?”

“I just need to make a salad. Can you slice the tomatoes?”

“Of course,” I say, moving to the fridge.

“You invest all that money you make?” my father asks Mark, as I set several vegetables on the counter and find a knife.

“How do you know I have money?” Mark counters, not missing a beat.

“I had you investigated a couple of weeks ago.”

I whirl around, the blade in my hand. “You did what?”

My father glances at the knife. “Easy there, baby.”

“I’m serious, Dad. You had him investigated?”

“Hell, yes. You work for him under unusual circumstances.”

“I’d do the same,” Mark comments.

I turn my full attention to Mark, the Master himself, and grimace. “Yes, you would. Yet I’m in love with you. Someone help me; I need a sanity pill.” I go back to my tomatoes.

Anna snickers, and Mark dives back into the verbal wrestling match with my father. “In answer to your question, yes, I invest.”

“Any tech stocks in your portfolio?” my father asks.

Anna and I exchange an eye roll at my father’s obvious baiting.

Mark throws the bait back in my dad’s bucket. “Are you asking if I invest in your company?”

“Exactly.”

“I did, but I sold it last year.”

“Why?”

“Better numbers elsewhere. I’m holding out for your next financial report to opt in again.”

Ouch! I glance over my shoulder at the same time my father looks in my direction. “He’s honest. You know I like honest.”

I let out a relieved breath. “Yes, I do.”

“And now I know why she has no filter,” Mark comments.

“I have a filter,” I argue. “And a brain to know when to use it. I just choose not to with you.”

“Don’t I know it,” he comments dryly.

“She had to learn to speak her mind to survive around here,” my father says. “And for the record, I’d really like to comment on the stock situation but I can’t. We can talk after the report.” Then he says, “Now, on to the most important topic of all.”

I hold my breath, waiting for what’s coming.

“Is your father going to go all the way to the championship this season?”

I smile and return to my chopping.

“If he doesn’t,” Mark replies, “my mother will get well just to kick his ass.”

“That’s the truth,” I mumble.

My father chuckles, something he rarely did before Anna came into his life. “You know,” he says, seeming to think out loud, “if anyone can convince Crystal to go to Paris, it’s her.”

“That’s it,” I say, abandoning my slicing duties to face both men, hands on my hips. “You two plotting against me is not the kind of bonding I was hoping for. It’s my pre-birthday celebration.”

Anna joins me, proving that her pride in being the keeper of family traditions will not be tested, even by a Smith and a Compton. “It’s her birthday party,” she states. “I’ve worked hard to make tonight special.”

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