He laid me down and made love to me, then. Not fucked me, not flogged me. Made love. And it turns out I needed that far more than the flogging. For just a little while, all those other feelings faded. A year ago, that tenderness would carry me for weeks—but now, only hours later, I need more.

* * *

I wake at 8 a.m. to the alarm and Rebecca’s journal lying on my chest. For several minutes I stare at the ceiling, replaying some of the hundred drowning entries, most of which involve me in some way. Scrubbing a hand through my hair, I set it aside, although letting go of it cuts me deep in my soul.

I want her back. I want to fix what I didn’t do right, though I’m not even sure where the right and wrong began and ended. Maybe at hello. But I’ll never get the chance to find out.

Pushing to my feet, I walk to the bathroom. I need to look myself in the mirror, to face my sins and my emotions, to rebuild my armor and the Master I’ve lost. Maybe that happened at hello, too, and I just didn’t realize it.

By 8:45, I’m dressed in a custom-made black suit with a red tie, chosen because it’s my mother’s lucky color. While I haven’t believed in luck in a very long time, she does, and that’s what matters.

Going to the desk I used to plot Ryan’s demise, I seal the documents back into the envelope, then walk to the closet and squat down in front of the hotel safe. After placing them inside, I lock it securely. Returning to the desk, I dial from the untraceable cell phone, frustrated when I get the beep of voice mail. Leaving a message that could bite me in the ass later isn’t an option, so I end the call.

At nine o’clock, Jacob is at my door in a black suit and a trench coat. He announces, “It’s snowing like a forest fire outside.”

I arch a brow at the contradictory statement that somehow makes sense. Taking my Crombie from the entryway closet, I step into the hallway, letting the door slam shut as I start walking. Ready to get to the hospital and see my parents. Even more ready to take action than I was last night. I’m done with sitting back, waiting, wanting, burning to death from my own lack of control.

The elevator opens and Jacob and I step inside. “Anything I need to know about this morning, Bossman?” he asks, using the nickname the Allure staff back in San Francisco often call me.

“I want one of your men shadowing Crystal around the clock.”

“Suspicion or protection?”

“Protection. She’s too close to my family and business to assume she won’t become a target.”

“Starting when?”

“Today. And it’s not enough for you to just be on alert for Ava. Find her and whoever’s helping her, before she finds us.”

His jaw is set hard. “We’re working on it.”

My eyebrow goes up. “No denial that she’s working with someone? I thought you were programmed to repeat that police rubbish?”

“More like, told not to encourage you to rip anyone’s throat out in the name of vengeance.”

“But you’re telling me that you think there’s more to Ava’s disappearance? Despite that order from your boss?”

“Yes, I do. And they do.”

“About damn time you grew some balls.”

“I assure you, Mr. Compton, I have balls the size of Texas when I need them. I can also promise you that, despite downplaying it to you, Walker Security is working every angle that could represent danger to you or your family, or even your reputation. They aren’t ignoring any possibility where Ava is concerned, or taking anything for granted where safety is concerned. They’re damned good—which is why I joined them.”

The elevator doors ding open and we step out, then head toward the lobby doors. “Do you have any new information you should share?”

“Nothing on Ava, Ryan, or Ricco that helps us at all.”

“Would you tell me if you did?”

“Not if I could rip their throats out for you and call it justice, to spare you the aftermath.”

“I’m not sure what to make of that answer.”

His stoic expression doesn’t change. “I do that to people.” He continues: “I don’t like the setup here. There’s only one door in and out of the hotel. If the press gets too heavy, it’ll be a trap. We need to move.”

Just then the hotel manager spots us from the bellman’s desk and rapidly moves in our direction.

“That’s Ralph Reed,” I explain of the forty-something dark-haired man in a brown suit approaching. “The hotel manager. He’s been around for years, and the hard set of his jaw and his brisk stride means there’s a problem.”

“Whatever it is, it just happened—because I met with him about my security concerns earlier this morning.”

Fighting the urge to curse at what’s certain to be a delay, I glance at my watch. “We have less than an hour to get to the hospital.”

“We’ll get there,” Jacob assures me.

“Spoken like a tourist,” I reply. “You don’t know the city at this time of the day and in bad weather.”

“Mr. Compton and Mr. Parker,” Mr. Reed says as we meet mid-lobby. “Excuse me for getting right to the point, but we have a . . . situation.”

Jacob motions to a corner. “Let’s step to the side, where we aren’t as exposed.”

“Of course,” the manager agrees.

I hold up a staying hand. “I have to get to the hospital. What’s the situation?”

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