I go cold as ice. “Yes. I understand.”

He doesn’t move, staring me down, the crowd bustling round us, and I think he’ll never stop looking at me with those cold, black eyes. Abruptly his hands go to my waist, his lips twisting as he starts caressing my body. While he makes it sexual, his intention is clear. He’s looking for something, and he finds it. He caresses my breast, sickening me with the touch, demolishing me with defeat. He grabs my phone and drops it to the ground.


He leans in close, his hot breath on my cheek. “I’m smarter than that, bitch.” And then he’s dragging me along again. The next few minutes become a blur, my mind going wild. He’s going to rape and kill me. I saw it in his eyes. I have only one way to survive and keep Mark safe. I have to kill him first. It’s a crazy thought that almost has me spurting laughter, like a crazy person. I think I might be crazy right now.

We exit to the street again and walk several blocks, and I try to think of ways to kill him. I took self-defense, but I don’t know how to kill. Survival is all I can think. Put him down, and then figure out the rest. Survive. Don’t give him a chance to tie you up or you’ll die.

We’re nearing Rockefeller Center, directly across from Riptide, and I start to fear that he wants to be around to enjoy the explosion. But he turns into a pizza joint connected to the subway, and immediately goes to the stairs leading down to the seating area and train tunnel. My heart stops when he heads to a bathroom instead of the exit.

This is it. This is where he’s going to do it. I fight the urge to scream for help, reminding myself about Mark. I have to take this bastard down. I have to be stronger than my fear.

He shoves me inside the small bathroom and leans on the door, holding it shut, holding my arms behind me, taking away my foolish idea that I could defeat him. Panic over the trapped sensation radiating through me is nothing compared to what I feel when a gorgeous brunette steps in front of me. “Ava,” I whisper, though I’ve never seen a picture of her.

“Yes, my sweet. I am Ava.” She cups my cheek, caressing it, sending a shiver through me. “So you’re Mark Compton’s flavor of the month.”

“What do you want?” I ask, trying to buy time, though I don’t know what for. I can’t get out of this. I can’t get away. But still, I try. “Why are you doing this?”

“Because it amuses me to hurt him. And what amuses me, amuses the man holding your arms. That’s real love, darlin’.”

She punches me, sending pain splintering through my head. I gasp and another blow comes. Then everything goes black.

Twenty-four

Mark . . .

I’m climbing the walls, losing my mind with worry over Crystal. I pace the small office a mile from Riptide that’s being used for emergency personnel and authorities. My staff has thankfully been evacuated, as are all nearby businesses, while the bomb squad does their job. But I’m going insane, and the fact that we were fighting shreds me all the more.

Royce is on the phone with the feds, trying to get an update on the ping for Crystal’s phone, and I listen, hoping for good news. He ends the call and shakes his head. I turn away, my hand in my hair, my eyes burning. An hour and a half has passed, and not one ping. Damn it, I had a plan. I was going to end this.

“Crystal’s father and brothers are trying to get past the blockades,” Blake says, from a cluster of people in one corner.

I’d talked to Hank an hour ago. He’d barely spoken, but I’d felt his anguish, his absolute torment. He’d trusted me to protect his daughter. I’d failed her and him.

Kara bursts through the front door of the office. “They found her,” she says, sounding winded. “She was in a bathroom a few blocks away. She’s on her way to the hospital.”

Relief and terror grip me. “What does that mean? What’s happened to her?”

“Beaten badly,” she says tightly, “and I don’t know the extent of her injuries. They couldn’t tell me. Jacob’s pulling up to the door to take you to her.”

Terror defeats relief as I head for the door, Blake on my heels. I can’t breathe with the thought of losing Crystal. I can’t lose her.

“I’ll get her family to her when they arrive,” Royce calls behind me.

I nod but don’t look back. I just need to get to Crystal. Outside, sirens are flashing everywhere, and Jacob pops the front passenger door for me. I climb inside.

“You okay?” he asks.

“I am as far from okay as I could possibly be.”

He pulls onto the street, navigating through the blockades. “I have your back, man, and I’ll rip out Jimenez’s throat if I get the chance. I’ll even hold him and let you do it, and tell everyone with a problem to fuck off.”

I nod but say nothing else for the eternal fifteen-minute ride. We pull up to the emergency room door and park, both of us exiting in a rush. Another vehicle pulls in behind us and Blake appears.

With Jacob and Blake by my side, I tell the receptionist, “My wife was brought in. Crystal Smith.”

The woman looks at the computer screen. “I’ll have someone come out and talk to you.”

I step to the side of the desk where she motions for me to stand.

Blake and Jacob follow me and Blake says, “We’re using satellite and camera footage to try to track Jimenez and Ava. We also have men questioning Ricco back in California about the tip you got about him and Jimenez working together in the past, but we could use any proof you have to pressure him.”

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