“Absolutely. Thank you.”

He exits and the automatic locks click into place behind him. I start to turn and hesitate a moment as a thought hits me. If there are cameras inside and outside the building, then any visit from Rebecca would have been recorded. If Rebecca came here, there would have been footage. And why wouldn’t she just come here or go to Mark’s house? How did she end up with Ava, whom she didn’t even like? There’s only one answer that makes sense. She came here, found out Mark was out of town, and went to the coffee shop. Mark said he never knew she had returned to the city. Maybe she went next door to muster her courage to come here, not knowing Mark was out of town? Somehow, she ended up with Ava.

I’m still considering the possibilities when I enter the business office to a ringing phone and an unmanned desk. Crossing to Ralph’s office, I find him packing his briefcase. Glancing at my watch, I note it’s barely six o’clock, early for the gallery to close. “Everything okay?” I ask, worried that Amanda isn’t the only one who might be ready to quit.

His eyes lift to mine. “As okay as we get around here, these days. I didn’t expect you back tonight.”

“Chris had a meeting, so I thought I’d stop in and check on things after your problem with the reporter. Where’s Amanda?”

“In the break room flirting with Ryan.” He leans on his desk, his crooked bow tie at half-mast. “He showed up about the time she was ready to walk out over that reporter stalking us all afternoon. Fortunately, she’s drawn to rich and good-looking men, and he convinced her to stay.” He lowers his voice. “And while I’m grateful he worked his mojo, she’s so over her head with him, it’s scary.”

He’s so right. “I know. I’ve tried to warn her away from him in the past. Obviously it didn’t work.”

“Try harder.”

He’s right again. “I will.”

“Good. Because she won’t listen to me.” He straightens. “Did you hear Bossman’s back in town?”

“I saw him at the police station. Did he call or come by here?”

“No. Ryan told us he’s here, and we’re hoping it means we can get back to some form of order.”

I’m irritated that Mark would communicate with Ryan but he won’t return my calls. Has this investigation become Chris and me against Mark and Ryan? Is it worse than that—against Mark, Ryan, and Ava?

No, that’s silly. Mark isn’t aligned with Ava. I pray Ryan isn’t, either.

Ralph slides his briefcase strap onto his shoulder. “Crystal has us closing at six since we aren’t operating the showroom. Are you coming in tomorrow?”

I won’t know until Chris has talked with Mark. “No decisions yet, but I’m just a phone call away, no matter what. And there will be security here starting tomorrow. No more reporters stalking you.”

“That’s welcome news. Shall we go herd Ryan and Amanda out of here, so we can all leave?”

“I think I’ll stay and try to talk to her, while I have a chance.”

“You sure? I don’t like leaving you here alone.”

“I’ll be fine. I think our talk will go better if it’s just her and me.”

He nods, giving me a hug on his way out. Pausing at the reception desk on my way to the break room, I’m stunned by the pages and pages of messages by the phone, though I suspect many are repeats. I have to help out here. There’s no way Crystal can handle Riptide’s massive operation and juggle Allure, too.

Since Amanda still hasn’t returned, I drop my coat and purse on her desk and head toward the break room. The soft murmur of voices has me peering cautiously around the doorway. Ryan and Amanda stand on the other side of the small kitchen table, facing each other.

He’s leaning close to Amanda, his head dipped low, and he murmurs something that I can’t make out.

Amanda leans away from him, giving me a partial glimpse of her face. “I’m not ready,” she whispers. “I can’t.”

Pretty sure I know what they’re discussing, I curl my hands into fists and it’s all I can do not to shout out my agreement. Of course she’s not ready. She’s a kid, an intern. He’s in his thirties, a Master with a depth of sexual experience.

“You are ready,” he insists, and I’ve had enough.

With a deep breath, I step into the room, and dare the deep muddy waters of butting into someone else’s life. “Ready for what?”

Ryan turns to face me, his light brown eyes skimming my body a bit too intimately. My stomach drops and I’m back in the moment when he and Mark tried to seduce me; when they trapped me, touched me. “Sara,” Ryan says softly, his voice almost as intimate as his inspection had been. “Good to see you. The last time we saw each other was in less than favorable circumstances.”

Is that what he calls Ava trying to kill me?

“I’ve been worried,” he adds. “How are you?”

“As good as any of us can be, under the still unfavorable circumstances.”

His mouth slips into a grim line. “Indeed. It’s not our best year, is it?”

His nonchalance over Rebecca’s death, and almost mine, makes me so angry, I decide no reply is better than what would come out of my mouth.

I focus on Amanda instead. “You’re not ready for what?”

She twists her fingers together in front of her. “Oh, I . . .”

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones Inside Out Romance
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