Finally, he turns to face me and says, “No. I don’t think Mark had anything to do with Rebecca’s disappearance.”

“Then why did you have to think about your answer?”

“Because he made decisions that led her to the place she ended up. I’ve tried not to blame him, but he has a responsibility and he has to own that, or he’ll repeat it with another negative outcome. I’m not sure he has that in him.”

Like Chris has owned what happened to Amber. “I was angry with Mark, too, but for all his sins, and he had plenty with Rebecca, he didn’t make Ava kill her.”

“No, he didn’t. And had Ava been someone else, Rebecca might have simply ended up like Amber. But he put both of them in situations that led to that kind of hate and anger. You say he loved her. I say he didn’t. Or he wasn’t in love with her like I am with you, any more than I was with Amber. You don’t drag someone you love into that kind of hell, and play the kinds of games he did with her mind and body. You climb out of hell to be with them.”

My eyes prickle and I lean into Chris and cup his cheek. “I love you. And Amber’s going to be fine, Chris.”

“Fine? She’s lost years of her life, and I let it happen.”

I realize now why I was so determined to save Amber. She’s not one of his scars. She’s an open, bleeding wound. “No. You didn’t.”

“I did. And that’s why I get Mark. I get his mistakes. I get the guilt he feels. And now, he’s living with the fear of his mother’s death. So we’ll help him get through this, but I need to be sure I know his state of mind, so I know how to navigate the situation. If he keeps denying his role in what happened, and refuses to make changes, this could be the end of the line with him.”

He kisses my hand and turns away, starting the car. I want to say more, but Chris’s cell phone rings and the opportunity is lost for now. By the time we near our apartment, Chris has confirmed that Jacob handled what turned out to be a reporter at the gallery and set up a meeting with him to talk about security concerns and options.

He ends the call and drives around to the back of our building to the garage. “I’m going to take my Harley to my meeting with Jacob, so you can have the car.”

“I thought I’d go with you.”

He shakes his head. “I’m going to try to connect with Mark after my meeting with Jacob and get a feel for where his head is, and I want to do that alone. And Jacob says Amanda is ready to quit after getting spooked today, so I assume you’ll want to go talk to her.”

“Oh no, that’s not good. There are only two of them as it is. Yes. I’ll go talk to her.”

Chris parks the 911 and leaves it running. When I join him on the driver’s side to take over, he says, “We’ll go pick out a car of your choice next week.”

“I have my Ford.”

“Give it to Amanda. You said she doesn’t have a car. We’ll get you a new one.”

“I don’t need a new car.”

“Yes.” He pulls me to him. “You do. One you feel is yours and meets my standards, which are high where you’re concerned.” He doesn’t give me time to argue. “Tell Amanda we’ll have security in place at the gallery by tomorrow. That should make her feel better. I’ll tell Mark when I see him.” He strokes my hair from my face and tilts my face to his. “Try not to worry too much. We’re okay.” He kisses me soundly and then crosses the parking garage to his Harley.

We’re okay, I repeat in my head, thinking about what he’d said about Amber and Rebecca. Why do I think he said that more for himself than me this time?

• • •

When I arrive at the gallery’s back parking lot, I’m surprised to see Ryan Kilmer’s silver BMW parked near the door, not far from Jacob’s black sedan. Locking the 911, I head toward the building and call Jacob to let me inside.

“What’s Ryan Kilmer doing here?” I ask when he opens the door.

“From what I can tell, comforting Amanda,” he says as I step inside. “He arrived about ten minutes after I did.”

The mama bear in me flares to life, determined to protect Amanda. “That’s what I was afraid of.”

“I take it you don’t approve of him?”

“Not a bit. She’s too young for him, and he’s—” I stop myself from saying “a Master,” unsure of what Jacob knows about that side of Chris’s life, “too old for her.”

Jacob’s eyes flicker a moment with what I am almost certain is understanding, but he says only, “I tend to agree. Will you be okay if I leave while he’s still here?”

A memory of Ryan and Mark cornering me at the open house for Ryan’s property is uncomfortable, but not frightening. “I’m fine,” I assure him. “It’s Amanda I’m worried about.”

“Understood.” He hesitates a moment, before adding, “Just a general warning about the investigation, speaking from experience. Anyone involved could decide to protect themselves by throwing someone else under the bus.”

“I know,” I assure him, thinking of my father and Michael. “I’ll keep my guard up. And thank you for everything, Jacob. I know it’s your job to be here for me, but you do it well, and it’s appreciated.”

His stoic features actually soften. “It’s my absolute pleasure, Ms. McMillan.” He pushes open the door to depart, pausing to add, “Walker Security is arranging for a man to be here by morning, but in the meantime it’s better to be cautious. If you leave after dark and Mr. Merit isn’t here, either have someone walk you out, or call me and I’ll come over.”

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones Inside Out Romance