Crystal . . .
I’m standing next to Dana Compton at her bathroom mirror, staring at our reflections. My long blond hair touches my shoulders; her short blond hair teases her chin. “I hate that I had to cut it,” she whispers. “Damn cancer and that blast of chemo they gave me before my mastectomy.”
Yes, I think. Damn cancer. But I stay positive, hoping she will, too—a feat that’s getting harder every day. “That blast of chemo kept you from losing ground when the blood infection made you too weak for your cancer treatments. Besides,” I add, “I think you look good with your hair this length. You have such a gorgeous face we can see now.”
She gives me a sad smile. “Now you sound like Mark. He said the same thing.”
I smile inside at the soft side her son has for his mother; I’m fairly certain I’m one of the few people who have been privy to the real man beneath the hard shell. Except maybe Rebecca. Of course Rebecca. He’d loved her—not that he’s confessed such feelings, but the deep, cutting pain in his eyes, the desperateness in him when he touches me but wishes for her, tells me he did.
“Your son loves you,” I say. “And he wishes he were here. He tried. He flew me to San Francisco to close the Allure gallery for him.”
“I know,” she assures me. “And he did the right thing sending you back here when Ava escaped last week. What if she’d targeted you for attack, because you were working at Mark’s gallery? We don’t know what sick reason she had for killing Rebecca.”
She doesn’t, but I do. It was for the same reason a brilliant, wealthy artist like Ricco Alvarez had created the counterfeit-art scandal at Allure and the Riptide auction house, not caring about the many lives and employees it would affect: jealousy over Mark and Rebecca.
“Ava needs to be caught and punished,” she continues. “Rebecca was a sweet girl.”
“It’s heartbreaking,” I agree. “Like something from a horror movie.”
“Yes, it is.” She glances back into the mirror. “Speaking of horror movies, I’ve gotten so thin these past two weeks, it’s going to terrify Mark when he sees me. And I need to get these roots done so I’m blond again before he comes home. I’ll look more like myself then, and that might lift my spirits.”
Since she started daily radiation therapy last Friday, she’s been so exhausted that she hasn’t been able to do anything. I don’t point that out, though. Wrapping my arm around her shoulder, I lean my head against hers and meet her blue eyes in the mirror. “I’ll have the stylist come to us. We can have a spa day next Sunday.”
“Let’s do it at the spa,” she suggests, her normally strong voice weak, and her normally rosy cheeks pale.
“The doctor wants you to rest so you’ll be strong. And we’re only through the first week.”
Her lashes lower and lift. “Right. I need to get five more behind me.”
Doubt colors the words, and defeat rolls off her in a way I’ve never felt from her before this week. I really do think having Mark here for her first week of radiation treatments, as planned, would have helped. But he’s not, and I am, and it’s all a mess.
“Come on,” I urge, gently taking Dana’s robe-clad arm to lead her back to the bedroom. “Let’s go watch A Walk in the Clouds. It came in the mail today and I know how you love Keanu Reeves.”
“Oh yes,” she agrees, wobbling with me past the giant claw-footed bathtub. “He’s my younger-man fantasy.”
“Keanu’s my older-man fantasy,” I tease, thrilled that I’ve elicited a lift in her voice.
“Two birds of the same feather,” she says, as she has so many times in the year since we met at a Riptide auction I’d attended.
“Yes, we are,” I agree wholeheartedly, helping her onto the bed.
“I’m all for the movie, but aren’t the cable and Internet still not working?” she asks as I help her settle comfortably against a stack of pillows.
“Random outages,” I say, kicking off my tennis shoes with the intent to join her. “We seem to be in the not-so-random area but they promised it’ll be fixed soon.”
“Did you call Marianne next door and see if she has the same issue?”
“Yes, and she does.”
Thankfully, with Dana lucid again and Marianne being a good friend of hers, she’s helping us keep Dana from watching the news until Mark returns. I really don’t know how she’s going to react to hearing reporters talking about a sex scandal involving Mark, and a connection to the counterfeit-art claims in Rebecca’s death.
“The cable company is lucky I’m not myself,” she murmurs, sounding groggy. “I’d raise hell.”
My lips curve. “I can’t wait until you’re raising hell again—even if it’s at me.”
Crossing the room, I stick the DVD in the player in the huge oak entertainment center and grab the remote control. Turning to the bed, I find that Dana’s lashes have lowered and she’s headed into sleep. With a pinch in my chest, I stare at the woman who’s my employer, my friend, and a third mother, so to speak—one with special qualities that really reach inside me and touch all the right places. Normally she looks like she’s in her forties rather than her fifties, but today she looks her age or older. She looks breakable.
My fingers curl into my palms. Damn cancer. And suddenly, even though Mark turns me inside out, and I end up in bed with him when I say I won’t, just to say good-bye over and over again, I want him here. He got her through the blood infection, kept her fighting, and kept his father’s fear in check, despite his own. I’m trying to fill his shoes, but fear I’m failing. I don’t want to fail.
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.
“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.”
“I’m already swimming neck deep.”
“Just control the media and run Riptide. Stay away from the rest. If I find out you’ve done any differently, I don’t care how dedicated you are or how loved you are by my mother, I’ll fire you.”
“Fire me?” I gasp, hurt, insulted, and appalled.
“It’s better than having you end up hurt. You’ve been protecting my family. I’m going to protect you.”
“I don’t need protection.”
“Well, you’re getting it. Which brings me to the subject of Walker Security. Their corporate office is in Manhattan, and I’ve contracted them to take over Riptide’s security next week.
They’ll also be putting men at my parents’ building around the clock. Since Blake Walker is still here working with the SFPD to find Ava, Jacob’s coming with me to New York.”
Tension curls up my spine. “This is extreme. What haven’t you told me?”
“I can’t stay away when my mother needs me. But where I go, the press follows—in far bigger hordes than you’ve experienced.”
“No. That’s not what this is about.”
“It’s me taking control.”
“Of what, Mark?”
“Everything. I’m taking control of everything.” His phone beeps. “I have to take that. Call me if anything changes.” The line goes dead.
Sinking onto the mattress, I lie on my back and stare at the ceiling. I’m taking control of everything. That includes me—or he thinks it does. But it’s bigger than that, too. I felt it; I read it between the lines. I replay the conversation, connecting the dots from everything I know to date, and come to the only conclusion I can. This is about the vengeance he vowed—and there are more players than I know. That threat to fire me was to make me back off before I see too much or get hurt. He was so fiercely adamant about protection, there’s clearly a risk of danger.
“What crazy, insane thing are you up to, Mark Compton?” I whisper.
Mark . . .
An hour after we land in New York, Jacob stops the rented Escalade in front of a ten-story gray building nestled within a cluster of buildings inside the center of Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center. “I’m not sure how long I’ll be,” I tell him, reaching for the door.
“I’ll stay close,” Jacob assures me, his steady, clipped ex-military tone part of his steely reserve.
With a short nod, I exit the rear seat onto the street and into large white snowflakes that quickly cover my hair and my Crombie topcoat. The beginning of a late fall snowstorm is yet another chilling reminder of how far I am from San Francisco and the life I’d worked to create for myself. But the illness my mother fights makes none of that matter anymore. Her living is all that matters.
Stepping under the overhang of the building, I glance at my Rolex to confirm I’m ten minutes early for the nine o’clock private meeting I’ve scheduled tonight, before I surprise my mother with my extended visit. “Riptide” is etched in gray stone between the large glass doors, and pride fills me. It’s the largest auction house in the world, and my mother’s creation is now twenty-five years strong—only nine years shy of my time on this earth.
This place is her beast to command and her kingdom of thousands of employees to relish, but I’m the ruler here now. And I also have to take the helm of my life, and everything around me. I have to be the Master that I lost somewhere along the line—the one who would never allow someone close to him to be hurt, as I did Rebecca.
I key in a code and enter the building, greeting one of the security guards on duty. Mr. Kimmel, well into his sixties, has been here since Riptide opened, and he offers me a quick greeting. “Mr. Compton, sir. I am certain you have made your mother’s day.”
“I’m surprising her in the morning.”
He smiles and his eyes light up. “A good way to start her day, indeed. Will you be staying long?”
“Oh, sir, this is good news that everyone, Ms. Smith included, will welcome.” And I have this sense that despite all the negative media about me, he feels I will save the day, or the company—or, hell, the damn world. As if I am unable to fail, as I have too much as of late.
He lifts a hand. “Shall I take your topcoat and briefcase?”
“Just my topcoat,” I say, shrugging out of it and handing it to him. “Thank you, Mr. Kimmel.”
“No, thank you, Mr. Compton.” He taps his badge. “I got an offer from Walker Security to stay on when they took over this week. I’m honored to have the opportunity to continue to work with your family.”
Having known him since my childhood, and being aware of my mother’s fondness for him, I easily reply, “It’s we who are honored to have so many years of honest service.”
Pride glows in his eyes at my words. He deserves the compliment. I might be hard; I might be demanding. But my mother taught me to commend those who prove greatness with loyalty and fairness.
His reaction to my arrival sets my determination to achieve the goal I’m here to attend to, and my steps quicken as I walk down the long hallway that I know leads to Ms. Smith’s office.
She needs to know that the Master is back from the bowels of hell. Sex and control make me stronger, which I’d forgotten these past few weeks—with gut-wrenching, heart-shredding results. I eased my rules, and crossed lines for and with Rebecca that ultimately led to her death.
I swore ten years ago that no one by my side would ever get hurt again. Yet in the dangerous gray that lies between black and white, I’ve already crossed lines with Ms. Smith.
No more. There is no in between.