As everyone begins to eat, I notice some bruising on Crystal’s jaw. “Oh God. You’re still healing.”

Crystal touches her face. “The changing colors are pretty hard to hide.”

“But you’re okay?”

“Yes,” she confirms, glancing at Mark. “But it’s going to take me a long time to get him to stop worrying.”

“That bastard who helped Ava is still out there somewhere,” Mark all but growls. “I want him caught.”

I wonder if this is what they wanted to see us about. Chris sets his fork down, and seems to feel the same, asking, “What are they doing about it?”

Mark shoves his plate away. “It’s the FBI’s jurisdiction now, and Royce Walker is ex-FBI, which makes him a valuable resource. But this guy has been on the Most Wanted list for years. I’m not confident.”

“He doesn’t want me,” Crystal argues.

“Give it up,” I tell her. “Mark’s going to push this, just like Chris would.”

“What can we do?” Chris asks.

“Nothing,” Mark says. “Or believe me, I’d be calling in a few of the favors you owe me.”

“What favors?”

“Should I start the list?”

“Please do.”

“How’s your mother, Mark?” I ask, changing the subject before we run out of time.

He reaches over and opens a package of hot mustard Crystal’s struggling with, and then hands it back to her. “Cancer-free and planning the wedding of the century.”

Chris arches a brow. “Big wedding, then, I guess?”

“We’d elope if we could,” Crystal says, “but this has made Dana—Mark’s mom—excited to live again.” She goes on to tell us about the wedding in six months, about her father, and about the most recent media frenzy, with Mark interjecting here and there and the two of them often finishing each other’s sentences. She’s no submissive, for sure, and she works magic on Mark. He’s different, more human.

No. Real. He’s real in ways he had never been before.

I reach for my drink and Crystal’s eyes go wide. “Your ring. Oh my God, it’s gorgeous. Can I look closer?”

“Chris designed it.” I hold out my hand and to my shock, Mark grabs it.

“A rose? A fucking rose? Does he know what they mean?”

“No,” I say steadily. “This isn’t about Rebecca. Chris never read the journals. He refused to invade her privacy.”

“Yet he chose roses?”

“Yes. They have a special meaning to him and to us.”

“They were my mother’s favorite flower,” Chris interjects. “We’re getting married under rosebushes that she helped plant.”

I’m shocked but pleased that Chris, who is inherently private, has shared something so intimate. But it’s clear Mark is struggling with old demons, and if anyone understands such things, it’s Chris.

Mark’s hands flatten on the table. “Talk about irony.”

Crystal’s hand covers one of Mark’s, a silent question in the action that I don’t expect him to answer.

Not for the first time tonight, Mark surprises me. “Rebecca loved roses,” he replies. “She had rose candles, rose bath wash. Roses everywhere.”

I watch Crystal’s face, afraid this is hurting her, and it is, but what I read in her is his pain. His pain hurts her. She loves him. Deeply. Completely.

“I gave her a rose painting for her wall from my collection,” he continues, and the memory of that painting makes her loss feel very real right now. “I sent her roses to convince her to be my damned submissive,” he adds, his eyes meeting Chris’s. “You were right. I should have walked away from her, and my regret cuts through me like knives every single day.”

“If only I could have seen my own errors when I was discovering yours,” Chris replies, his voice thick, gravelly, affected by Mark, but also the rawness of losing Amber.

I wrap my arm around his, holding onto him, and Crystal and I look at each other, understanding each other in the depth of our glance. Chris and Mark are different, but alike in ways that make me understand how they once were both friends and enemies.

I hope now the rift will be mended.

“I heard about Amber,” Mark says softly. “I’m sorry.”

Oh, yes. This is a much softer Mark—and I believe two women, Rebecca and Crystal, have on some level come together to create this new person I’m seeing.

“Me, too,” Chris says. “And like you, there are things I’d do differently.”

Mark inhales as if he’s trying to push down some emotion, then straightens. “That’s what we wanted to talk to you both about. My mother and father are retiring and plan to travel. Crystal and I have taken over Riptide in New York. I sold my house here, and I sold the club to Tiger. But we’ve decided to keep the gallery and reopen it with a new purpose.”

“What purpose?” Chris asks.

“All proceeds will be donated to your charity.”

Chris and I sit up a bit straighter now. “That could be a substantial amount of money,” Chris points out.

“I hope it will be,” Mark assures him. “Rebecca lost her mother to cancer, and I almost lost mine to it. This is my tribute to a woman I was lucky enough to save, and to one I loved and lost. I can’t bring Rebecca back, but I can make sure she’s never forgotten. I can do something good in her name.”

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones Inside Out Romance