Grabbing my briefcase to start weeding through the mounds of work, I carefully settle on the bed, wanting to be close if Dana needs me. As my laptop powers up my cell phone vibrates with a call, and speak of the devil—it’s Mark. Cautiously slipping off the bed, I punch the Answer button and whisper, “Hello,” as I head for the hallway.

“Why are you whispering, Ms. Smith?” he asks, and damn him, even with the snap to his question, and the use of my formal name, which he knows I hate, his voice brings up memories of my visit there last week. Of him crumbling before me, a broken, hurt man; then our naked bodies and his vow that we were done—even though we’d never really started. And the moment he’d grabbed me and kissed me before he put me on a plane, to get me out of harm’s way. I’d tasted regret, pain, torment. He’d loved Rebecca. He’d lost her.

“Ms. Smith—”

“I’m staying with your mother and she fell asleep, so I’ve moved to another room,” I reply quickly, stepping into a spare bedroom and pulling the door shut.

“Where’s my father?”

“He went to the college campus to meet with his assistant coaches about baseball season.”

“Well, that’s a relief. I pressured him to attend to his team today, and he told me he couldn’t leave her alone with her nurse. If she’s the wrong person, we need to replace her.”

“No. She’s very nice. Your mother is just emotionally wounded right now. She needs extra tender, loving care and I was happy to bring my work here and hang out with her.”

“Since I’m still not there as I’d hoped, we need to talk about the staff and the press.”

“They’re handling the pressure from the reporters remarkably well.”

“For now,” he says. “But mark my words, money has a way of showing people’s true colors. With hundreds of employees, someone will be offered a big payday and they’ll take it. Those are usually the people that paint a canvas of lies, too.”

I know how easily people hide nastiness behind a shell of niceness. “I’m ready if it happens. But your mother is alert now and I’m struggling to keep the news from her. You have to talk to her soon.”

“I’m headed there Wednesday and I plan to stay in New York indefinitely. I’ll get in touch with my father and we’ll plan to talk to her if she seems strong enough. But don’t say anything to her about Wednesday. I don’t want to get her hopes up and have some problem keep me here.”

Relief washes over me. “Oh, thank God. She’s better when you’re here. I hope your return means there’s news on Ava?”

There is a brief silence, a shift in mood that crackles, before he replies, “From what I understand, you called Jacob yesterday and asked him the same question.”

Taken off guard, exhausted, and hurt for reasons I don’t try to understand right now, I fight to contain the sharpness of my tone. “Yes,” I confirm. “I called your private bodyguard.”

He doesn’t even try to contain the sharpness in his. “Don’t go around me again.”

The reprimand hits me all kinds of wrong ways, and I snap. “If you expect me to say, ‘Yes, Mr. Compton,’ it’s not happening. I won’t apologize to you for wanting answers. No. This isn’t even about wanting them. I need them to ensure I can keep holding things together here. I deserve not to be left in the dark.”

His silence stretches to the point that I want to scream, though like him, I don’t lose control easily. I most certainly don’t scream—at least, I haven’t for many years.

“Nothing,” he finally says.

“Nothing?” Is this one of his many head games? “What does that mean?”

“There’s no sign of Ava. She’s just vanished.”

Shocked he’s conceded me this battle, I quickly dive in for more information before he shuts me out. “Did she have the money to leave the country?”

“From what I hear, not enough to truly disappear, not without some help. And the only thing I’m hearing is speculation.”

“They still think Ricco helped her, because he believed you were framing her for Rebecca’s murder?”

“That’s the theory. They’re convinced he thought the kid from the coffee shop was her lover, and he helped them run off, perhaps to another country.”

I read what he hasn’t said. “You don’t buy it.”

“The kid was going to turn in evidence on her. Why would he run off with her?”

“To buy time with the police?”

“Maybe,” he says tightly. “Or maybe she killed him, too.”

“Do you think . . . would Ricco actually have killed Ava? Could that be why she’s so completely off the radar?”

“If he is responsible for Ava’s disappearance, I hope like hell that bastard found out she was guilty, and killed the bitch. It saves me the trouble of hunting her down and doing it myself.”

The guttural roughness of his voice reminds me of his vow to kill anyone who hurt Rebecca. “You don’t mean that. Mark, you can’t—”

“I know what killing her would do to my family. And I already told you, I’m not convinced it was Ricco that helped Ava, anyway.”

“But you think someone did.”



A pause. “I sent you back there to keep you out of this.”

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones Inside Out Romance
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