“Ah, sweetheart. I knew it was bad, but I had no idea how bad.”
I’m suddenly angry at the tears that are making him feel sorry for me. I straighten. “It was bad, but I’m blessed, Mark. I ended up with a wonderful family that many don’t have, and that includes Daniel. He’s a bulldozer but he means well. Even when I’m pissed as hell at him, I love him.”
“And they all love you—especially your father.”
“He likes you, too. How’d you manage that?”
“I’m fairly certain it was when I told him I love you enough to take a bullet for you.”
My eyes burn again. “You said that to my father?”
“Yes. And I meant it.” He brushes hair behind my ear, his look tender—and worried.
I grab his hand, worried about where his mind is going. “He never hit me. My counselor thinks it was the closet that causes my claustrophobia. You’re not going to be afraid to touch me, are you? I liked it when you spanked me.”
He wraps his arm around me and pulls me close. “You’re mine, Crystal. I’m going to touch you.”
“You know what I mean.”
“There are all kinds of ways we can get around actual bondage. I’m creative.” He nuzzles my neck, goose bumps lifting as he adds, “If you aren’t convinced, I’ll convince you.”
My lips curve. “I’d like to be convinced.” And I’m only half joking. I do want to be convinced. “I want to defeat the claustrophobia. I don’t want that man to still have that control over me. I want to control me. I want the cuffs. I want you.”
He frames my face. “I don’t need the cuffs. I just need you.”
Mark . . .
When Crystal and I finally return downstairs, Daniel pulls her aside to talk to her, and I walk to the giant stone fireplace in the downstairs den and stare at the flames. I’ve never felt as protective of anyone as I do now of Crystal, and my mind races with ways to make this nightmare end. Ways to lure Ava out of hiding.
“Would you like a drink, son?” Hank asks, coming to my side.
“I’d prefer to stay clearheaded.”
“She told you everything,” he says flatly.
“And you’re ready to bolt.”
I cut him an irritated look. “Not even close.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
Me. I’m the problem. I face him, ignoring the question and I change the subject. “We can’t bully her into going to Paris.”
“Why the hell not?”
“She’s a control freak. She needs to know everyone around her is safe. The mercenary or Ava could hurt her, yes—but if they hurt anyone she cares about, it will destroy her. And being in another country, not knowing what is happening—or worse, finding out something has gone wrong—would tear her to pieces. She’d blame me and us.”
“She’d be alive.”
“But would she be living? There’s only one good answer here. Ava and this mercenary have to be captured before they hurt someone else.”
“Yet they are on the loose, and my daughter is evidently on their radar.”
“You think I’m not living that hell right now?” I scrub my jaw. “I need to go make a phone call.”
He studies me a moment. “My office is the first door to the right outside the kitchen.”
I nod but exit the penthouse for the hallway, dialing my “hunter” and repeat the offer of a small fortune to find Jimenez and Ava.
“I’ll happily take your money, man, but Jimenez is a master at staying off the radar. I do have one interesting piece of information, though. I linked Ricco to Jimenez. It took some digging and there were aliases used, but Ricco hired him several years back for a job. I have proof of the transactions. So it’s not Ryan you’re dealing with here. It’s Ricco.”
Alarm bells go off. Ricco has deep, deep pockets, and he controls his funds—not some gangster types we now think Ryan might be associated with. “Are you sure?”
“Then why is Ava still alive? Ricco was obsessed with Rebecca. He wouldn’t help her killer.”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe Jimenez is amusing himself with her, in which case she’ll end up dead.”
Or Ava did what many think is impossible, and successfully seduced Jimenez. “What job did Ricco hire him for before?”
“No details on the job itself.”
My lips thin. “Get me proof on Ricco, and find Ava and Jimenez. Update me tomorrow.” I end the call and lean against the wall.
If Jimenez is the master of staying off the radar, right now I’m the master of nothing. I’ve only felt this helpless one time before, and it didn’t end well. I can’t sit here like a duck on a pond.
I dial my ex-customer, the head of the television network, and offer him an interview. If I can’t find Ava, I’ll bring her to me.
Next, I dial my attorney. I’m going to need him.
Crystal . . .
When we arrive home from my birthday celebration, Mark takes me to bed, insisting he’s going to make love to me, not fuck me. Turns out vanilla with Mark is never vanilla, and those hours in bed are some of the most intimate we’ve ever shared.
But in the morning light his mood has changed, leaving him distant and on edge. He’s silent on the ride to work, but his hand is on my leg. Mixed messages—the man is forever confusing. Once we walk inside Riptide he quickly disappears into his office, and I can’t help but worry there’s something going on with the Ava situation that he doesn’t want to tell me.