At nearly lunchtime, I’m in the lobby to greet a customer when I hear Beverly announce my father’s call to Mark. A moment later, Royce Walker walks into the lobby for a scheduled meeting with Mark. Thirty minutes later, I’ve finished with my customer when Beverly calls me to the reception desk, lowering her voice to a hushed whisper. “That TV network executive you had a run-in with is here again. He’s in with Mark, and so is Royce Walker, as well as some FBI agent.”
I pray this means there’s good news, but the odd way Mark was acting this morning still worries me. “Thanks, Beverly. There’s a Cecelia Mercury coming in. She’s worth millions to Riptide. Buzz me in Mark’s office when she arrives.”
I head toward the hallway, trying to seem calm and cool when there is so much adrenaline pumping through me, I think my heart might explode. I stop at Mark’s door and knock. He doesn’t answer. I knock again, and when there’s still nothing, I peek inside—and find it empty.
The conference room is the only other place he could be, and sure enough, the door is shut. I knock, and almost instantly, Jacob opens the door. A moment later Mark appears, stepping into the hallway and shutting the door rather than inviting me inside.
I hug myself, crossing my arms over my pale pink dress. “What’s going on?” I ask, my stomach in knots.
“I’ll come find you when I’m done.”
“No. You’ll tell me now.”
“Don’t shut me out. Don’t do that to me. Has something happened? Is someone hurt?”
His hands come down on my shoulders. “No one is hurt, or in any more danger than they were yesterday or the day before. I’m simply taking steps to end this nightmare once and for all.”
“I need you to trust me.”
“You say that too often, Mark. If you won’t tell me, I’ll talk to my father. I heard him call you.”
“Damn it, Crystal.” He scrubs a hand over his face and pulls me to the end of the hall, lowering his voice. “Ava’s erratic; she snaps easily. So we’re trying to come up with a way to use the press to bait her.”
“Yes. But we can’t figure out how to be sure it’s me she comes after.”
“That’s insanity. You could end up dead. Jimenez is with her.”
“We have to take control, Crystal. Doing nothing isn’t working, and no decisions have been made.”
“And you decided I shouldn’t be a part of those decisions, obviously.”
“I was going to bring you in after I had a solid plan, which isn’t yet.”
“After—right. Because I can’t possibly be your partner. I’m your possession. You’ll tell the woman how things will be after you’ve decided.” I try to step around him.
He catches my arm. “That’s not how this is. The idea of losing you destroys me.” His voice is low, gruff. “I knew it was going to scare you, so I wanted to have a workable plan before I came to you. Right now, I don’t.”
Mark steps aside at Beverly’s urgent tone and I bring her into focus. “Ms. Mercury is here, and she’s not in a very pleasant mood.”
“I’m on my way.” I whirl on Mark. “Ms. Mercury is worth millions to Riptide. You go plot our certain destruction. I’ll go try and fund it.”
I leave, knots in my stomach, fear in my heart. He’s going to get hurt—and as furious as I am with that man, I can’t bear the idea of him getting hurt. I turn around, returning to the conference room door and opening it.
I glare at the room that includes Kara, Jacob, Blake, Royce, and a few other men. “I’m the logical target. Ava killed Rebecca. We do an interview and make me the bait. It’s the best way to end this.”
Mark stands up from the conference table. “Actually, that’s an option we’ve talked about,” he shocks me by saying. “But there’s a condition that I told everyone you wouldn’t consider.”
“What’s the condition?”
“You agree to go to Paris, while an FBI agent pretends to be you.”
My heart sinks. How am I supposed to walk away and hope everyone I love is safe? But how do I ignore a chance to end this, when even I’ve said it’s the most logical choice?
“Fine. I’ll do it.”
* * *
My meeting is tough but it ends well, and I walk my client to the lobby. As soon as she departs, Beverly flags me down. “Mr. Compton needs you in his office.”
“Thank you, Beverly,” I say, walking toward my office, not Mark’s. I need a minute to process Paris, and his planning all of this behind my back. The instant I walk into my office, my cell phone rings and I don’t even look at the caller ID. Of course it’s Mark. I answer with exaggerated formality, “This is Ms. Smith.”
“Ms. Smith,” says an unfamiliar male voice that sends a chill down my spine. “There is a bomb in your building. Walker Security isn’t as good as they think they are.”
I am instantly reeling, the world spinning under my feet. “Who is this?”
“You have exactly two minutes after we hang up. Exit the building and turn right, then turn into the sandwich shop next door—or the building will be detonated. Do not put on your coat before you leave. Do not carry anything out with you. If you allow anyone to stop you, everyone is dead. If anyone steps into the sandwich shop that we think is following you, everyone is dead. Make sure they don’t. Ready, set—”