She flattens her hands on her knees. “Here’s the thing. I’m under a confidentiality agreement, and no matter how much I want to, I can’t discuss details about Mark with you without his consent.” She hesitates. “And it’s killing me. I want to.”

“That answer really makes me feel like there’s something I need to know.”

She inhales and lets it out, shoving a long lock of brown hair behind her ear. “Okay, look. I’m walking a fine line here and talking about personal impressions, of which I have very few since I’ve barely met Mark. Blake, however, has met with him many times. He says Mark is like he was right after his fiancée was murdered: ‘guilty, driven, and willing to go over the line.’ ”

“That sounds like the Mark I’ve come to know.”

“But he’s not stupid or vicious. Blake doesn’t believe Mark would hurt someone innocent, or someone he sees as a victim.”

“You’re telling me you don’t believe he is responsible for what happened to Corey.”

“Do you think he is?”

“No, I don’t. But I’m not so sure about Ava, and there’s also a man named Ryan.”

“Yes. We know him well. If he’s guilty, he’s covered his tracks well. If we catch Ava, she’ll likely give him up. That’s how it works.”

“So could he have helped her escape for that reason?”

“Yes, but Corey was going to turn in evidence. It seems strange they’d let him go; something doesn’t add up.”

“And he accused Mark?”

“I can’t—”

“If he did, he could have been threatened.”

“We know. Believe me, we’re trying to protect Mark, and not just because he pays us. Blake feels a special connection to Mark. I feel one to you. A person driven for vengeance walks a slippery slope. Blake left the ATF because he knew he was going to kill the man who murdered his fiancée. He would have, if I hadn’t been there—and even then, it was my sister that held him back.”

“Your sister?”

“Yes. She disappeared, and I knew the same man was responsible. If he was killed, I knew I’d never find her. So in the split second where Blake could have killed him, knowing he was breaking the law, he chose not to.”

“Where’s your sister now?”

“She’s been missing for nine months.”

“Oh God. I’m sorry.”

“I haven’t given up; we’re looking for her and the man who took her. But here’s why Blake gets Mark so well. Even with me trying to help Blake heal, with our love, and his fiancée being gone for years now, he still fully intends to kill that man. It’s in his blood like a poison. So please believe me when I say this. You have to pull Mark back before he does something he’ll regret.”

“If you can’t pull Blake back, how can I possibly help Mark? I can help him cope, yes, but we’re not you and Blake. We—I don’t know what we are.”

“I see how that man looks at you. And I don’t need Blake’s opinion to know your influence over him. And he’s protective and possessive, to the umpteenth degree.”

“Protective and possessive are bone deep in that man, and he looks at me like he wants to get me naked, because that’s what he does to silence the demons screaming in his head right now.”

“I told myself the same thing with Blake. And I get it, Crystal. The thought of being a replacement for someone who’s been lost is a strange bird to hear sing. You aren’t sure if the words match the emotions they connect to. I’m sure he’s fighting anything he feels for you, out of guilt, and I don’t envy you this part of your relationship. It’s a painful, guilt-driven path full of jagged edges that will cut you many times over—but it has to be traveled to find out what’s real and what isn’t. No matter what you decide in the end, you are the one sharing this journey with him. You are the one who can stop him from doing what he’s doing.”

“Which is what? What’s he doing?” Mark asks.

My heart jumps to my throat as I discover Mark standing several feet away. He doesn’t look happy. He motions us to the elevator, and we rise to our feet. As we walk toward him, Kara quickly murmurs, “He hired someone to track Ava. He believes she’s alive, and we’re fairly confident he doesn’t want her to stay that way. We’re desperately trying to find her before he does.”

My mind instantly goes to his extra phone, and how he wanted me out of his parents’ office to take a call.

Mark punches the call button for the elevator as we join him. “We’re going to Riptide,” he informs us, his expression as hard as his tone. He doesn’t look at me, and I can almost feel the anger radiating off him.

The elevator dings and we all step into the car. Mark still won’t look at me, and my urge to hug and talk to him is extreme, but it would clearly be unwelcome. When we exit the elevator we rejoin Jacob, and by the time we’re seated in the Escalade, the silence is thick and uncomfortable. Mark has withdrawn physically and emotionally, and the way that it’s tearing me up inside proves Kara’s words. This path he and I are traveling is full of jagged edges, and I either have to accept that or get out. And I’m too invested in him, and his family, to choose the latter.

When we reach Riptide, the absence of the press is a relief. A member of Walker Security claims the Escalade while Jacob and Kara walk us to the entrance. Once we’re all past the double doors, Mark and I continue forward. When we reach the centerpiece of the lobby, an abstract rug of grays and reds framed by four low gray chairs, I ask Mark, “Why aren’t you talking to me?”

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones Inside Out Romance
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