My father, the man who taught Daniel how to be a hard-ass, softens instantly. He winks at Anna. “And you did a wonderful job. We’ll go join Daniel and Scottie for a drink so you can’t hear us talking.”
Mark gives me a wink of his own and follows my father.
Great. Now they’ve moved to another room, where I have zero control over where they go with this Paris conversation.
Anna steps to my side. “Mark sure won your father over quickly.”
I cast a suspicious glance at the doorway. “Yes, he did.”
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, the table is set and Anna sends me to round up the men for dinner. I walk out toward a double stairwell and head down to the level where the den—and the bar—is located. I’m on the final step, still hidden by the wall, when Daniel’s voice lifts.
“I’m protective and I won’t apologize for it,” he says. “She watched her damn father beat her mother to death. So I’m telling you, man: You hurt her, you’ll live to regret it.”
I suck in air and grab the railing, feeling like I’ve been kicked and betrayed. Damn you, Daniel! This isn’t how Mark was supposed to find out about my past!
I turn and run back up the stairs, desperate to get away before someone sees me. I reach the main level of the house and Anna is in my line of sight, headed my way. Needing a few minutes alone, I round the railing and begin climbing the stairs to the next level.
“Crystal!” Anna calls from behind me, but I keep climbing the stairs, fighting the same windstorm of emotions I felt often those few years when Daniel had lived with me. He’d shoved family down my throat, when I’d had one foster family after another take me in and throw me out. Even Angela, Hank’s first wife, had died before the adoption. I’d liked her, and wanted her to love me.
Back then, it seemed like everyone eventually left me. I wasn’t ready to open my heart to have it ripped to pieces all over again, certainly not because Daniel ordered it to happen.
I clear the final step, entering what my father calls the Observatory, where a glass wall and various telescopes offer a view to be envied. Walking to the glass, I press my hands to the surface, knowing that it’s hurricane-proof and I won’t fall. But as a teen I hadn’t known, and there were many times I leaned on it and hoped I’d fall.
Behind me there’s a soft sound and awareness rushes over me, telling me Mark is here. I feel this man in ways I’ve never felt another human being—and never wanted to. I didn’t want to need anyone and end up ripped to pieces again.
He steps behind me, but I can’t look at him yet. I think he knows and understands. He knows what hell feels like.
His hands come down on the glass beside mine, that spicy, masculine scent of him a soothing balm. “You okay?”
“I’m angry that Daniel told you.”
“He spat it out before I could stop him. I didn’t ask, Crystal. I wouldn’t do that to you.”
I turn and flatten my hands on the solid wall of his chest, his warmth radiating into my palms. “I know. Daniel gets in his fierce mode and tries to rule the world, and it’s always his way or no way.”
“Come sit,” he urges, drawing me by the hand.
I nod and he leads me to one of the four oversized chairs in the room, where we squeeze in, facing each other. Mark trails a finger down my cheek. “You didn’t answer my question. Are you okay?”
“I wasn’t ready for this. I’m still not ready.”
His hand rests on my hip. “This doesn’t mean I don’t touch you. We aren’t shut down by this.”
I want to believe him. More than he can possibly know. Cotton forms in my throat and I face forward, staring at the twinkling city lights in the ink-black night. “My father beat my mother often,” I force out, saying what I’ve never said out loud to anyone. “I’d hide in the closet. So . . .” I inhale and let it out, my eyes burning from just thinking about what I’m about to say. “My mother always acted like it didn’t happen the next day—until she couldn’t pretend anymore.” I look at him. “The night she died, he started beating her with a belt, and her screams were bloodcurdling. I was crying, and shouting her name. I think I knew on some level that he was different that night, angrier in some way.”
I face forward again. “My shouting got his attention and he came after me with the belt. He’d never touched me before, but he intended to now. I saw it in his eyes. My mother must have, too, because when I ran and hid in the closet, she attacked him. He turned on her and”—my voice hitches—“he beat her until . . . she died.” Tears flow and I swipe at them. “Sorry. I haven’t let myself think about this in years. And I’ve never told the story to anyone.”
He takes my hand. “Don’t be sorry. Don’t ever be sorry.”
An old ache rips through me and my tears flow more freely. “She lay there limp and pale. And he turned to me and told me it was because of me. Then he left. Walked out of the door and never came back. I mean, they arrested him and he’s in jail, but he just . . . left her like that.”
Mark tilts my chin in his direction, wiping away my tears. “It wasn’t because of you. You know this, right?”
“Yes. But I didn’t know that as a child, or even a young teen. My first couple of foster homes were disasters. The first one, the husband and wife had a fight and I jumped on the husband. The second, pretty much the same story. After that, they wouldn’t let a couple have me. I ended up with an elderly woman for years. She was a sweetheart, but then she had health issues and I was back without a home.”