Pakistani rights activist arrested on charges of sedition, protests threatened Hezbollah's Nasrallah: Israeli PM is lying about group's missile sites

I rolled my eyes. I can’t tell you how much we are not, I told her. He’s raw from his divorce; I just broke up with Eli. You’re gonna have to ship someone else, Molls. She pouted. On the bright side, I added, we’ve kind of found a nice friend rhythm. It’s working for us.

She couldn’t have heard him correctly. How could his parents possibly know what she did in her private life? Could you repeat that? she asked, unable to make sense of anything at this point. He sighed. When my parents showed up, it was to nose into my personal life. Apparently, it had trickled down the family grapevine that I was seeing a woman. Since it’s . . . unusual, they felt the need to invade not only my privacy, but yours as well. During the course of that, they ran across the fact that you were divorced but appeared to be on the verge of reconciling with your husband. Or at least your recent trip to a marriage counselor seemed to suggest that. Oh, my God, Crystal gasped, before jumping to her feet. They told you that? When he nodded, she put her hands in her hair, more embarrassed than she’d probably ever been in her life—and that was saying something. What kind of person must they think she was to be dating their son while trying to get back together with her husband? A harlot, that’s what they think. Probably the gold-digging variety, no less. As she paced the kitchen, she muttered to herself, Their son finally has a girlfriend, and she’s a bona fide tramp. Boy, that’s just something you want to put on your family newsletter and holiday cards. Oh look, here’s Mark and his slut of a lady friend. They’re very happy together—when she’s not dating her ex-husband. Crystal paused in her rant when it registered that Mark was laughing so hard he was shaking. What in the world do you find so funny? she yelled. This is a disaster of epic proportions, and you’re amused? He held up a finger as if asking for one second while he fought to control his mirth. Sorry, Angel, he managed to get out. She stood with her hands on her hips, glaring, which didn’t seem to faze him at all. He got up and walked to where she was standing and slid an arm around her waist, pulling her into his arms. She stood stiffly before letting out a huff and melting into his embrace. I’m sorry they did that to you, Angel, and I promise that it’s been dealt with. But you do owe me an explanation, don’t you think? You’re right. I do, she answered quietly. Can we go in the living room and sit down? Instead of answering, he tucked her under his shoulder and they walked down the hallway together before he dropped down to the sofa and pulled her into a similar position. Now, what’s going on? he asked, not sounding angry, but rather determined. This is why you took off without telling me, isn’t it? she asked, already knowing the answer. That’s correct, he replied, without hesitation. I was pissed and uncertain as to how to handle it. It seemed better that I take the adult version of a time-out, so to speak, than stay here and say something stupid. We’ll get back to that in a moment, she said before telling him exactly why she had agreed to attend the first counseling session with Bill. He remained quiet, letting her talk until she reached the part of her telling her ex-husband that she wouldn’t be accompanying him again and that she wished him well. So that’s what brought on the visit from your mother this evening? he guessed correctly. Yep. I wasn’t taking her calls, so she must have decided to corner her other daughter, probably in hopes that I was there hiding from her. Most people might have left it for another day when they saw a driveway full of strange cars, but not my mother. She’s not shy at all about causing a scene, as you witnessed firsthand. Mark dropped his head back, looking up at the ceiling. Even after everything you told me about her, I still never expected her to be as bad as she was. I may have joked about it before, but she truly is the female version of my father, and you have no idea how much I hate that for you, Angel. Crystal stroked a hand up and down his chest, enjoying being close to him once again. It’s not a good feeling to know that I’ll probably never have many peaceful moments in my life because of her. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll eventually just crack under the pressure of it all. His arm around her had tensed before relaxing once again. You’re stronger than that, baby. Your mother is a bully and needs to be put in her place. Looking up at his handsome face, she quirked a brow in wry amusement. And how’s that working out for you with your father? Touché. He winced. Possibly, this is one of those instances when you need to do as I say and not as I do. Believe me, I know how hard it is, Angel. I’ve lived it for most of my life. And I don’t want that for you. Allowing her hand to slide downward until it reached the bulge behind his zipper, she lowered her voice and told him, What I want is to not think of parents at all for the rest of the night. I’ve missed you so much. Fuck, I’ve missed you too, he hissed when she unbuckled his belt, before dealing with the fastening and zipper on his pants. He was already semihard when she lowered the material of his boxer briefs, releasing his heavy weight. Angel, Mark shuddered, thrusting his hips upward to meet her stroking touch. His mind was still on everything that had happened earlier at Ella’s, but his body was firmly aligned with Angel. When she wrapped her plump lips around his cock, a groan escaped his throat. He threaded a hand through her hair, guiding her wet mouth up and down his length. Fuck yeah, baby, he moaned. Relax your throat and take it all. She gagged as she attempted to go too far. The vibrations were enough to nearly make him lose his load far too soon. It took her a few more attempts, but then she was working him exactly the way he needed. That’s right, Angel, he praised. You feel so goddamn good.His balls tightened and his spine tingled, proof that he was close. He tried to pull back, not wanting to catch her by surprise. No, she mumbled around his cock and took him in farther. That was it for him. He was coming and powerless to stop. He only hoped she would push him away before she suffocated on his cum. Instead, she took everything that he gave her and sucked him dry. Angel. He found himself begging for mercy. Baby, stop before I pass out. As spent as he was, when she sat back on her knees and licked her lips, he felt his dick twitch. Then he lost his heart to her when she gave him a saucy smile and asked, Good, right? At this defining moment, he knew he was in love for the first time in his life. Most men were probably prone to some fuzzy thoughts after a blow job, but an outstanding one was enough to make the biggest of bastards sentimental. Since none of those had ever applied to him, he knew this was different. He could easily picture himself having moments such as this with her for the rest of his life, which was the real confirmation that she was different. It was amazing, he agreed as he stroked her cheek. He stood, pulling his pants up so that he wouldn’t trip over them, before extending a hand to her. Come on, baby; let’s go to bed. She allowed him to lead her down the hallway and into his darkened bedroom. He left her at the doorway while he walked across the room and turned on a bedside lamp. Then he quickly stripped and took a seat at the foot of the bed. She looked at him uncertainly as if awaiting his instructions. Good girl. Do you need my help taking your dress off? She shook her head, saying quietly, No. He palmed his rapidly hardening cock, stroking it from tip to root lightly as he said, Remove it—now. She only hesitated briefly before bending to grip the hem of her dress and pulling it slowly over her head. Before she could release the material from her hands, he said, Now place it on the chair close to you. Yes . . . , she replied. Mark had a feeling that it was on the tip of her tongue to add sir, but she didn’t. Thank Christ, because he wasn’t sure how he would have handled it. The urge to dominate her was already overwhelming, and she wasn’t ready for that. Something about her demeanor told him that she wouldn’t be averse to it, but to him, she wasn’t like the others. He’d never been a tender lover, but with her, that was his first inclination. He could far too easily imagine a life where they could both express themselves sexually, secure in the unconditional acceptance that their love for each other would bring. Take your bra off for me. Again, without question, she flicked the clasp between her breasts and released it before putting it on top of her dress. He continued to pull on his cock, content to watch as she bared herself to him. Now the panties, beautiful girl, he directed. She was absolutely gorgeous as she shimmied out of a scrap of lace and added it to the pile. A look of surprise flashed across her face when he pointed to the other chair and said, Now have a seat. Spread your legs and put them over each armrest. Again, she barely faltered before doing as he instructed. When she parted her thighs, revealing her neatly trimmed sex, Mark felt his renowned control beginning to slip. While he was attempting to regroup, she asked shyly, Now what? Now I come in my hand like an inexperienced teenager, he thought dryly. Clearing his throat, he said huskily, Touch yourself, baby. Show me what you do when you’re alone. He almost choked on his tongue when she looked around and asked, Do you—um, have a vibrator? Sweet heaven. Count to ten . . . do anything but focus on the visual of what she’s implying. I—not at the present, Angel, he wheezed. Make do without it. She shrugged her shoulders and then dropped a hand between her legs. She began circling her clit as if she had all the time in the world. His cock was so hard by this point, it could be used as a fucking battering ram. He squeezed the tip and attempted to blank his mind. Not easily done when Angel was sitting just feet away with a finger now buried in her wet heat. Mark, she moaned as her motions went from languid to feverish. She was close—almost at the edge. Keep your eyes open and on me, Angel, he called out, bringing her head up immediately. She was magnificent. She embraced her sexuality in a way that made him weak with desire. She was his perfect match. She made him a better version of himself, and he gave her the freedom to shine in a way that she had always been denied. Never looking away from him, she thrust two fingers deep into her channel and her body clenched. He could smell her arousal as she came by her own hand while chanting, Mark . . . Oh God, Mark . . . Her words were his undoing. Taking her slowly at first never seemed to be an option. The edge had to be taken off before he could take his time and make love to her. He didn’t even bother to tell himself tonight that it was anything other than that. If it were, she would have been long gone like the women he had known before her. Come to me, Angel, he demanded softly. He watched as she rose to her feet before moving gracefully across the dimly lit room, stopping just inches from him. He reached for the hand that she had so recently pleasured herself with and sucked the two fingers he knew she had used into his mouth. He couldn’t get enough of her sweet, musky flavor. He licked until nothing remained before releasing her digits. He raised his arms to encircle her waist, and then surprised them both by laying his head on her stomach. After a moment, he felt her fingers run through his hair, stroking him gently.

I love pleasing you, she murmured as she continued to touch him. He kept his face averted for a bit longer, not wanting her to see how deeply her words affected him. He had employees all over the world that he paid to do his bidding. But, other than maybe Denny, when had anyone ever wanted to do something for him out of the goodness of their heart? Sure, he knew she was talking about something sexual at this moment, but in the short time that they had been together, she was constantly doing thoughtful things. When she found out in an earlier conversation that he loved Mallo Cups, from that point forward, she always stopped on her way to his house and bought him a pack. And even though he had a housekeeper and used a dry cleaner for his suits, she still insisted on washing his other clothing and putting it away when she stayed over. Angel, he’d learned, was the nurturing type, and he’d been surprised to find that he liked it. She gripped his head, tugging back until she was looking at him in question. Yeah, baby, he agreed. I’m all yours. She gave him a grin before motioning him backward against the headboard. When he settled there, she climbed on the bed and encircled his cock with one hand. She positioned him at her entrance and lowered herself onto him inch by inch. Fuck, he hissed, feeling his eyes roll back in his head. He fought the urge to thrust upward, not wanting to give her too much, too soon. Instead, he let her set the pace, gritting his teeth until she was finally snug against his root. I need you to move, Angel, he grunted, digging her fingers into her hips to help her upward movement. She let him guide her hips, while she gripped the headboard to propel herself up and down. So good . . . she cried out as he bumped against her cervix on each thrust. Not gonna last for long, baby, he warned as he tried to hold off long enough for her to come first. He moved one hand from her hip and circled his thumb around her clit. That was all it took. Within seconds, spasms shook her body as she came. He was unable to stop himself from following closely behind as she milked his cock of everything he had. Then it hit him like a bolt of lightning. He stiffened as she slumped against him. Angel, he said urgently. Shit, baby, I didn’t wear a condom. He couldn’t believe it. He’d never had intercourse in his life without protection. He’d never been in a committed relationship, so the issue hadn’t come up. A few women had assured him that they were clean and on the pill, but he wasn’t ever tempted to risk it. I’m on the pill, she mumbled from her position on his shoulder. Then, with him still inside her, she curled even closer, and he could have sworn he heard a light snore beside him. Shaking her slumbering body lightly, he asked, Since when? He knew when they first started dating that she wasn’t on anything, or at least that was what she’d said. A couple of weeks ago. I was going to surprise you, she whispered before adding, Oh—surprise. He relaxed, breathing a sigh of relief. It rattled him that he’d forgotten something that he’d always considered so vitally important. But luckily, Angel at least had been thinking ahead. And God had it felt amazing being inside of her bare. He’d known while he was sliding in and out of her that it was somehow impossibly better than ever, and now he knew why. Skin on skin. Unbelievable. Mark enjoyed their closeness for another few moments before he lifted her from his body so that he could go to the bathroom. He washed up and then brought a cloth to take care of her. She didn’t even stir while he cleaned between her legs. When he got back in the bed and wrapped his arms around her, she snuggled into his hold with a murmur of approval before going still once again. He wanted to go over what had happened tonight in his mind but found that he didn’t have the energy. Tomorrow would be soon enough to figure out the next step. Tonight he just wanted to hold his Angel and believe that he was the type of man who ended up with a woman like her. Chapter Twenty As Crystal flitted around his kitchen making pancakes, Mark relaxed at the bar reading the paper and sipping his coffee. Finally, he gave up on trying to focus on the news and simply watched her. She was wearing one of his T-shirts and had her hair up in a ponytail. Her face was freshly scrubbed, and she could have passed for years younger. When she flipped a pancake in the air and managed to catch it neatly in the pan, she turned to him with glee as if wanting to share her accomplishment with him. Good job, Angel, he praised, bringing a soft flush to her cheeks. After another ten minutes, she was finished and settling in beside him on a barstool. He put his arm around her shoulders and they ate their breakfast nestled against each other. Again, he had the feeling that he would be content to do this for the rest of his life. He was firmly in that fantasyland when his doorbell rang. The garage door was already open since he’d walked down the driveway to retrieve the paper earlier, and the knock that followed the bell came from that direction. Are you expecting anyone? Crystal asked, still looking relaxed. I’ll just go to the bedroom and change before you open the door. Baby, you’re fine, Mark assured her. His shirt practically reached her knees, which was about the length of the dresses that she normally wore. It’s probably either Denny or, God forbid, someone selling something. Although that doesn’t usually happen on Sundays. Maybe you’re being recruited for the church. She giggled. Mark gave her a mock scowl as he walked toward the door. We’re going to talk later about why you think that idea is so funny, Angel, he warned as he slung open the door without bothering to check the peephole first.Crystal was still laughing over his threat when he felt his first jolt of alarm. For the second time in mere days, his parents stood facing him. Visiting him at home was so unlike them that he could only blink for a few moments as he attempted to regain his composure. Good morning, son, his mother said brightly, but again there was a hint of apology in her expression before she motioned for him to invite her inside. He stayed where he was, blocking their entry into his home. This isn’t a good time, he stated firmly. I had no idea you were back in town, so I’ll have to call you later and arrange another time. We never left, his father spoke up, already sounding well on his way to being intoxicated at ten in the morning. I’m sure you can spare us a few moments. We wanted to follow up on what we were discussing on our last visit. His mother turned to his father and put a hand on his chest. Honey, let’s go have breakfast and let Mark finish with whatever he’s in the middle of. It was rude of us to barge in on him. We should have called first. His father snorted his disdain. He’s not some business associate, Celine. He’s our son. I don’t think we need to make an appointment to talk to him. Then at the worst possible moment, Mark felt a hand on his back as Crystal asked in a voice filled with concern, Is everything okay? He shut his eyes briefly, hoping his parents hadn’t heard her, but luck wasn’t on his side at all. Who do we have here? his father asked as he pushed his way closer. Um—hi, I’m Crystal, she stammered, looking taken aback by his father’s loud demeanor. Instead of taking the hand that Crystal had hesitantly extended, his father let out a startled oath before bellowing, Are you kidding me? His eyes were drilling Crystal to her spot, but his words were directed at Mark when he snapped, After all that we told you about her, she’s still around? And from the looks of things, she’s damn comfortable in your home. What’re you planning to do, let both her and her husband live with you after they reconcile? His mother and Crystal both gasped simultaneously. Marcus, that’s enough, his mother hissed, looking appalled. This isn’t what we came here for. It’s exactly why we’re here, his father insisted. Do you want to see some moneygrubbing tramp take your son to the cleaners, Celine? Because that’s what going to happen unless we intervene. He plainly can’t see the forest for the trees. Get out now, Mark boomed. He knew by the way that her hand shook against his back that he had startled Crystal with his forceful tone. His parents also appeared to be shocked by his command. Good, maybe he finally had their attention. You have no right to come to my home and speak to or about Crystal in that manner. Besides the fact that you don’t know what in the hell you’re talking about, it’s just downright rude. I don’t think I’ve ever been more embarrassed to say you’re my parents than right now—and believe me, that’s saying something. His father’s chest puffed out as he snapped, Well, I don’t have to stand here and take this from you. Throwing his hands in the air, Mark said, No, and please don’t. Leave now before this gets even more out of hand. His father was sputtering insults and in general blustering about everything he could toss out. His mother, for probably the first time in his life, looked disgusted at her husband’s behavior and maybe just a little fed up. Was it possible that the rose-colored glasses were finally off and Celine DeSanto didn’t like what she was seeing? I’m leaving now, Marcus, and so are you, she stated firmly. Turning back to Mark, she added softly, I’m sorry, son. We shouldn’t have come. Then her gaze moved beyond him to Crystal. It was nice to have met you, dear, and I apologize for both my husband and myself. Crystal murmured something in reply that he couldn’t make out, but it brought a brief smile to his mother’s face before she grabbed her husband’s arm firmly and all but dragged him away from the door and down the driveway. Mark shut and locked the door behind them, then turned to check on Angel. What he saw there made his gut clench in despair. Her violet eyes looked impossibly large in her pale face. Her body still trembled in reaction to the verbal assault from his asshole of a father. Mark wanted to go after the man who had sired him and kick his ass for upsetting her in this way. He’d gotten far too used to dealing with the drunken tantrums, but obviously, even with her shrewish mother, Angel still wasn’t accustomed to such ugliness from strangers. Fuck, he was angry and embarrassed. I’m sorry, baby, he said against the top of her head as he pulled her into his arms. I had no idea they were still in town. Aren’t I just the popular one this week, she joked weakly against his chest. First my mother and now your parents. Maybe we should introduce them; I think they’d have a lot in common. He chuckled lightly at her attempt at humor, but his heart wasn’t in it and from the sound of her voice, neither was hers. She’d been the victim of far too many angry words in the last twenty-four hours. None of which she’d deserved. She’d attended marriage counseling with her ex-husband because she was a nice person and he was hurting. Not the best idea, but that was the type of caring person she was. And for that, her mother had ripped into her in public for not being the malleable puppet that she wanted her to be. Now his own parents had joined the fray on the premise that he needed to be protected from a money-grubber. What a joke. The only thing his father was afraid of was that there would be another person with a claim to the DeSanto money or, hell, even more if he had children. Ah, Angel, I’m sorry that I don’t bring anything better to the table than what you’ve already got. I’ve never given much thought to it beyond the usual misery, but right now I really wish I had better to offer you in that area.She hugged him to her tightly. It’s not your fault. She still looked ashen when she pulled back. Do you mind if I go lie down for a while? I woke up with a bit of a headache, and it’s still bothering me. He knew she was lying by the way her eyes shifted to the side. She needed space and some time to regroup. She’d probably actually like to go home but didn’t want him to feel worse than he already did. Sure, baby, he agreed. Go on in and I’ll bring you some Tylenol and water in a few moments, okay? He had dropped a kiss on her upturned mouth before she walked down the hallway and out of sight. When she was gone, he sank down onto a barstool and ran a hand over the stiff muscles in his neck. He was feeling pissed off and helpless. Why couldn’t anything ever be simple? The usual meet-a-girl-and-fall-in-love scenario didn’t seem to matter here. Instead, the woman whom he adored had a bitch of a mother intent on tearing her down at every opportunity. Mark was a big boy and figured he could handle that. But then toss his own parents into the mix, also intent on making his woman miserable, and you had a lynch mob of sorts. He’d gotten pretty good at blocking them out or pretending they didn’t exist, but now it wasn’t just him. Sure, he could go on the attack. They might even back off for a while afterward, but there was one thing he’d learned through the years—that didn’t last for long. It was amazing how resilient the mean bullies of the world were. He wished that everyone could bounce back from discord that quickly and easily. His Angel was a sweet, kind, and loving woman who’d already had to deal with a hostile mother and possibly a manipulative ex-husband for years. Was it fair to ask her to continue that trend with him? If there was one thing he knew about his father, it was the fact that he was like a bloodhound when he was obsessed with something. And right now, he feared that Angel was the object of that fixation. Mark couldn’t be sure that he would always be there to put a buffer between them, and he didn’t want to think of her as she was right now: wounded over thoughtless words from a man who drank too much and cared too little. How much peace would she ever have if they remained together? As much as it tore him apart inside to admit, he was very much afraid that he loved her enough to let her go. He had nothing more to offer her than himself and how much would that mean after a few more run-ins with his father? Where would she escape to for sanctuary after a nasty encounter with her mother? To his house, where she would be nervous every time the doorbell rang? Goddammit to hell. It looked as if this would be the one time that he walked away and left his heart behind, along with any future happiness that he had dared to envision. If love was the subject of so many fairy tales, then why did it fucking hurt so much? • • • Crystal curled up in the soft sheets of Mark’s bed. She’d chosen his side so she could smell his scent on the pillow she’d pulled in close to her. He’d been in just a few moments earlier to bring her the promised pain relievers. Not that she actually needed them. She’d made up the headache excuse to get a few moments to feel sorry for herself. The horror she’d felt over having the parents of the man that she loved thinking she was trash was devastating. Even with her mother constantly putting her down, she’d never actually thought of herself as not good enough for someone she cared about. Possibly not the best daughter or even wife, but never inferior to others. She considered herself an average woman who dressed nicely enough and worked hard to support herself. It was quite obvious that those were not qualities admired by the DeSantos. Instead, she’d been labeled as a tramp who was out to deceive Mark into allowing her access to his money and his bed. She’d read stuff like that in novels but never thought she’d encounter it in real life. It hadn’t been an issue with Bill because they were both of similar upbringings. Mark came from money and a different set of circumstances from anything she’d ever known. Of course, he had an amazing house and cars that she was certain cost a lot of money. But he’d never made her feel as if he was better than her because of it. She had found him to be very levelheaded and . . . normal. He cooked when the situation called for it, he cleaned up after himself, and yes, he had a driver, but in his defense, he spent a lot of his travel time working. She’d also heard Denny mention the company plane, but again, that was to be expected of a man in his position. He owned a company and had to travel sometimes at the last minute. He didn’t lord it over her and brag about the riches that were available to him. He was just Mark, the man who made her feel better than she ever had about herself. The man who called her Angel and treated her like one. His parents, though—that was a different story. He’d told her that his father would make her mother look nice, but she hadn’t actually believed it until today. Marcus DeSanto was a nasty piece of business. She wasn’t as certain about his wife. Celine DeSanto had tried to defuse the situation and had apologized for her husband. Then she’d literally hauled him away. From the conversations Crystal had had with Mark, she didn’t think that was a usual occurrence. Maybe Marcus had even gone so far this time as to have embarrassed his wife. She’d always thought that the disdain her mother showed her was an isolated incident. Bill’s parents, while being aloof and rather cold, had never been ugly. She didn’t get the sense from them that they were disappointed that he’d married her. She didn’t think it really mattered much to them either way. And they’d never been insulting over anything—even the divorce.

Looking back, Crystal realized now that she had loved the idea of escaping her mother more than she’d actually loved Bill when she got married. For years, that had been enough for her. She’d been content to take the scraps of affection he’d tossed her way because it was preferable to being at home and constantly criticized by her mother. It had also been one of the first times in her life that her mother had seemed almost proud of her. Or at the very least, she hadn’t been as disappointed. But when Ella and Declan had shown her what true love actually looked like, that had been the end of that happy bubble. She’d wanted Bill to be more like Declan—which hadn’t worked at all. And in truth, it wasn’t really his place to change. He had stayed exactly the man she’d married. If anything, he had more right to argue that she wasn’t the woman he’d married. Poor Bill. Even though she was a bit pissed that he’d run straight to her mother over her quitting the counseling sessions, she couldn’t really hate him for it. He’d been reeling since she’d asked for a divorce, and he had yet to recover. She didn’t think it was because he was heartbroken as much as he was struggling to adjust to the change in his life. He couldn’t fathom why she was suddenly not content to be his wife. She’d been truthful when she’d told him the day she left him that they both needed to be free to find what they were looking for. When he did finally move on, she sincerely hoped he would meet the one for him—because it wasn’t her. That had never been clearer to her than it was now. After being with Mark, she couldn’t go back to settling again for less than what she needed. She knew what true passion, desire, and—God help her—love felt like. It was a fire that consumed you. It took your very worst parts and made them into something new—better than you had ever been before. The fire burned so brightly, you wondered if you’d survive the flames. And rolled up within all of those exhilarating feelings was the counterbalance of peace. Just a feeling of knowing that you’d found the ultimate connection. The one that would spin you higher than you’d ever been before and then be waiting to catch you as you came down. With these thoughts racing through her head, Crystal pushed the cover back and slid from Mark’s bed. Even at her worst moments, she’d never been the type to hide away from the world, and this wasn’t the time to start. She quickly splashed some water on her face in the bathroom before running a brush through her hair. Then she went in search of Mark. She had almost given up and was going to get her phone to call him when she noticed someone sitting on the back deck facing the beach. She halted and turned that way, silently opening the door and walking barefoot across the warm wood to where he was seated. She ran a hand over his shoulder, letting him know she was there, before saying softly, I was wondering where you were. I couldn’t find you. He reached back, capturing her fingers in his and pulling her around to sit on his lap. She cuddled closer to him, and for a while, they were content to watch the waves crash against the shore. In the distance, she could see people on the sand enjoying the warm day, but strangely enough, it still seemed as if they were in their own private world. Feeling better, Angel? he finally asked against her ear, causing her to shiver. Yeah, I’m good. She smiled. Nothing an hour in the DeStudo bed couldn’t take care of. He snorted, squeezing her lightly before relaxing his grip. Then he began speaking and by the end of what he had to say, she realized that she’d never really known what true fear was until that moment. My parents weren’t that different from the ones that my friends had growing up. They weren’t like the ones on television shows, but they were all I knew, so I adjusted to their quirks pretty early on in life. Then I started spending a lot of time with Denny, and things were different at his house. He had a mother who did all of her own cooking and cleaning. Plus, she actually enjoyed having us around. His father was quiet and worked long hours at the auto shop he owned, but he was never too tired to toss around a baseball or spend time teasing us about some girl we liked. The funny thing, as we got older, I liked staying at Denny’s because his parents cared, even though it came with rules, and he liked staying at my house because mine didn’t give a damn where we went or how late we stayed out. I could have a party most anytime I wanted to because they either weren’t around or didn’t care if we used the pool house. So each of you wanted what the other had? Crystal asked when Mark paused to gather his thoughts. Yes, for a while, that was exactly it. Then, as my father started to drink more and more and the arguments between him and I ramped up, Denny gained a new appreciation for what he had at home. By the time we were eighteen, he avoided my house about as much as I did. That saying that you need to be a drunk to live with one is very true. Other than my mother, no one wanted to be around my dad when he was intoxicated. I’ve even blamed her through the years, thinking if she’d just get fed up enough to force him to get help, maybe he would change—or at least want to. But she’s always been right there, his enabler. I guess I should admire her unconditional love, but who is that helping? It’s certainly not good for him, and I can’t see how it can be for her either. She seemed as if she wasn’t happy about it earlier, Crystal pointed out. She forced him to leave when he clearly wasn’t ready to. Mark nodded. That was unusual. It did prove what I’ve long believed. She could so easily bend him to her will if only she would try. But I dare not hope that today was anything more than a momentary lapse in patience on her part. Celine has always been a permanent fixture in Team Marcus’s camp, and I don’t see that changing.I’m sorry, honey, Crystal stated honestly. Her heart broke for him. She, better than anyone, understood the kind of pain dealing with a foul parent could bring, and the fact that his father was also an alcoholic brought a whole different element to the equation for him. It made her shudder to think of how bad her own mother might be if she were drinking as well. The term hell on wheels would certainly apply. He fitted his hand to hers before weaving their fingers together. He watched the act as if fascinated by it. My father has been angry with me for years because my grandfather left his company in my hands. It wasn’t because he loved me more, it was simply because he didn’t want to see the family fortune or reputation go down the toilet because my father couldn’t stay away from booze. Since then, my father goes to the main headquarters every so often and makes an ass out of himself until he has my attention. It makes him feel powerful to jerk my chain because he knows I’ll come to save my employees from dealing with him. It’s been the same for so long that it’s almost part of my regular routine now. I’ll go to Charleston, pretend we’re one big happy family, and then I’ll have a short reprieve before we do it all over again. It’s my life, Angel, just as your mother’s behavior is in yours. I know, she agreed. And you’re right; it does become somewhat routine after a while. It doesn’t mean that it’s any easier to deal with, though, does it? No, baby, it doesn’t, he sighed. Which is why I can’t do this to you anymore. I saw what it did to you last night to have your mother say those things to you. Then you had but a few hours to recover before my parents were in your face saying even worse. I would have had to be blind this morning not to have noticed how much that hurt you. I may be able to shrug off the ugliness and go on, but I can’t ask or expect you to do the same. In a voice thick with panic, she croaked, Mark, what are you saying? Instead of shying away, he faced her fully. His eyes were sad, but there was also a determination there that scared her to death. You’re such a beautiful person, Angel—both inside and out. And I feel more for you than I could have ever imagined. If I didn’t, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But I do, and I can’t let someone who I care so much for suffer because of me. And that’s what it would be. I can threaten and lay down the law at every turn with my parents, but eventually they’ll manage to get you alone and unload some more vile accusations on you. With me, you’ll never get away from that. You’ll bounce back and forth from one bad situation to another. Eventually, you’ll grow to hate me for doing that to you, and that would kill me, baby. With tears rolling down her cheeks, she cupped his face as she shook her head. No—baby, no. I could never hate you. God, I—I love you. I would deal with anything as long as we’re together. Please . . . He put his hands up, rubbing the tears from her face with his thumbs, only to repeat it again as they continued to fall. Shhh, Angel, don’t you see it’s because I love you that I’m doing this? Baby, parts of my life are ugly, and they’re not going anywhere. One of the things that I love so much about you is that you’ve always seemed so bright I could have sworn you were lit from within. But after my parents left this morning, that light was so dim that it was almost nonexistent. And I won’t be the one to extinguish it forever. Mark, she cried, you don’t have to do this. I can be stronger. They just surprised me today. I promise you, I’ll be okay. Just— But you shouldn’t have to be, he interrupted. That’s the point here, baby. They’ll always catch you by surprise because you can’t and shouldn’t have to plan to be attacked. Before she could argue, he lowered his head and locked his lips on her. Even as she responded to the frantic touch of his mouth, she knew it for what it was—good-bye. He was sitting here with her after professing his love, but he was already gone. Men like Mark didn’t make decisions lightly, and he’d decided to sacrifice his happiness, thinking he was saving her own. He got to his feet and lowered her back into the chair. Denny’s here to take you home. He’ll have your car delivered later. He’ll give you his card so that you can call him if you need anything at all. Then he drove the final arrow into her heart. Take care of yourself, Crystal. I’m no longer Angel to him. He’s letting me go. She reached out and grabbed his hand before he could walk away. Don’t do this to me—to us, she begged, as she tossed her pride aside. For a brief moment, she saw past his blank expression to the pain that blazed from his eyes. He cupped the side of her face, stroking her cheek. Can’t you see, baby? I have no choice. This is hurting me too, but it’s better this way. I’m giving you a future of happiness and laughter instead of a life spent looking over your shoulder. When she opened her mouth to protest, he put a finger to her lips, silencing her. Don’t, Angel—this is hard enough already. Please just go with Denny. I love you, she whispered as he pulled his hand away. He closed his eyes and looked unsteady on his feet as he walked away. Crystal was dimly aware of Denny showing up at some point and helping her into the car. He cursed under his breath, and she had no idea if it was directed at her or Mark, but she couldn’t find it in herself to care either way.

As she walked numbly down the hallway toward her apartment with Denny keeping a firm hand on her back, she was surprised to see her sister standing in front of her door, looking at her in concern. Mark called me, Ella answered her unspoken question as she got closer. Crystal winced before focusing on finding her key in her purse. Ella took it from her hand and opened the door. Denny followed them inside and insisted on doing a walk-through of the apartment before coming back to her with a card in his hand. The look of sympathy on his face was almost her undoing. I don’t need that, Denny. I’ll be fine, she insisted as he tried to give her his contact information. He put his hands on her arms, pulling her gently against his chest. I know you will, he murmured, but humor me anyway. One night you might need someone to buy you a beer while you talk about what a dumbass my cousin is. Crystal laughed weakly despite herself. What are you doing right now? He chuckled along with her, not appearing in any hurry to leave. When she finally pulled away, she was mortified to realize that she’d been crying hard enough to soak the front of his shirt. Crap, she hissed, wiping her cheeks. Don’t you dare tell him about this, she threatened. If he asks, say that I was fine when you left. You got it. He nodded. I’ll be the person that you both lie to about how not miserable you are without each other. Her sorrow turned to anger as she put her hands on her hips and glared. This wasn’t what I wanted, Denny. I pretty much begged him not to walk away from me. I know, Crystal, he agreed solemnly. It was a rather unexpected time for Mark to be so damn noble. But, in his defense, he’s doing what he feels is best for you. And I’ve been around the DeSantos long enough to know how ugly things can get. For the record, though, I don’t agree with him, and he knows that. He’s been happier since meeting you than I’ve ever seen him, and I think that scares him. Why would he possibly be afraid of me? Crystal asked in frustration. Denny looked conflicted for a moment as if afraid of betraying Mark by talking to her. Finally, he shrugged his shoulders and said, You got past the public Mark to the private one, and he doesn’t let that happen. He has many acquaintances, but no one close. He let you in, though, and discovered how good love could be with someone more than a one-night stand. Then the whole scene happened with his parents this morning, and it hit him hard how it would feel to get even more attached and then lose you. Which he feels like is inevitable due to the fact that they’ll always be crazy and ride his ass at every opportunity. I swear. What is it with you men and this honorable, do-the-right-thing crap? Ella shouted, shocking them both. Declan was the same way, and it took me getting hit by a car to bring him to his senses. For God’s sake, if not for being scraped off a bumper, I might still be single! Um—Ells . . . are you okay over there? Crystal asked tentatively. A glance at Denny showed him opening and closing his mouth as if unsure whether to speak or not. Of course, Ella sniffed. I’m just tired of the Webber sisters having to deal with this bullshit. I’m telling you, though, if I didn’t like Declan’s guy part so much, I’d go home and cut the sucker off just for putting me through this. Is this some kind of weird flashback? Denny whispered. It may not be safe for you to be here, since you have a penis, she whispered back. You’d better leave while you can. She saw his hand drop down for a moment and wondered if he’d cupped the family jewels out of fear. So, I should run along now, he began as he edged toward the door. I’m going to leave my card right here, Crystal, he added as he laid a white rectangle on the coffee table. Call me if you need anything at all. Thanks, Denny, Crystal called out as he opened the door to leave. Looking from Ella to her, he cringed, saying, Um, good luck with all of this, before closing the door behind him. Damn, I thought I’d have to go after him with a pair of scissors next, Ella huffed. Talk about not getting the message. Crystal stared at her sister incredulously. Are you saying that whole thing was an act to get rid of Denny? Well, duh, Ella snorted. Although I was serious about men being stupid. Don’t think I haven’t pointed that out to my hubby a few times either. He agrees that he was out of his ever-loving mind back then to consider walking away from me. Looking at her normally sweet sister in amazement, Crystal said, You’re just a little scary sometimes, Ells. And possibly a bit nuts. But I like it, and I sure needed it today. Ella closed the distance between them, pulling her into a hug. I’m so sorry, Crys. If it makes you feel any better, Mark sounded miserable when I talked to him. I’m glad you’re here, but I have no idea why he called you, Crystal admitted. Ella kept an arm around her as they walked to the sofa and then collapsed onto it. He told me briefly that you two had broken up and that he was worried about you. He asked if I could come here and stay with you. So of course, I told Declan to watch Sofia and came right over. Pushing a piece of hair from Crystal’s face in a motherly gesture, Ella asked, What happened, Crys?

Crystal repeated everything that had occurred that morning before, during, and after Mark’s parents’ visit. She was proud that she managed to get through it without choking on another wave of tears. So, I guess, points to our mother for starting the downward spiral of my weekend and also planting the seeds in Mark’s head that I couldn’t handle any more drama in my life. Crap. Ella dropped her head back onto the sofa. They both had stared at the ceiling for a few moments before Ella said, I don’t think he’s right in his decision, but I can understand him trying to protect you. I mean, what you described about the way his parents treated you sounds even worse than Mom. I can’t imagine how it would feel to have three people in my life who were always gunning for me. Look at how you and I text and call each other when Mom is on one of her rolls. Sometimes we spend hours a week trying to coordinate our efforts to avoid her until she calms down. How draining would it be to add two more people to that kind of toxic mix? Trust me, Ells, I get that part, she sighed. Is it wrong that I wished he’d loved me enough to at least attempt to look for another answer other than walking away? I mean, we didn’t even try. He just made the decision and sent me on my way. I wasn’t kidding when I said that Mark sounded bad when I talked to him. He might have thought he didn’t have any other choice, but he’s suffering as well. Good. Crystal smiled weakly before closing her eyes and resting against her sister’s shoulder. She was no happier about Mark’s misery than she was her own. She wasn’t sure what the answer was or even if there was one. The only thing she did know was that she was going to have to be stronger than she ever had before; otherwise, losing him would destroy her. Chapter Twenty-one So, we’re back to running away again, huh? Denny asked as he settled next to Mark on the company plane. Plus, I know you’ve been dodging me for the last week. How would that even be possible? Mark asked out of curiosity, even though it was true. He had been avoiding being alone with the other man since his breakup with Crystal on Sunday. Denny held up his hand and started ticking off his supporting evidence. First, you’ve been driving yourself to the office every day. You never do that, so that’s a bit suspect. Second, you haven’t been answering your phone when I call—only replying to texts. Third, I’ve never known you to have so many meetings at other locations. People generally come to you, not the other way around. Fourth . . . I get the picture, Mark acknowledged dryly. It’s nothing personal; I just haven’t been very good company this week. I did bring you on this trip, though, so it’s not a case of complete avoidance. Denny smirked. I figure that’s mainly because you don’t want to make your own arrangements everywhere you go, but I’ll let it slide. Mark looked out the window of the plane as they taxied down the runway and started climbing. When they’d finally reached the correct altitude, he asked softly, How is she? Denny didn’t bother to pretend he didn’t know to whom the question pertained. She hasn’t called me for anything, but I’ve managed to catch sight of her a few times at the office. She’s been there every day, according to Lydia, but she looks about like you do. Who’s Lydia? Mark asked, thinking the name sounded familiar, but unable to place it. Lifting a brow, Denny said, Crystal’s boss—who, incidentally, I promised you’d put in a good word for her with Jacob in exchange for a little information. Okay, Mark said automatically, before frowning. Why would I do that? Oh, never mind, I remember Angel mentioning that Jacob had helped a coworker out with a car problem, and she had been rather taken with him. I’m assuming that was Lydia. I’ve already mentioned it to Jacob and asked that he take one for the team, so he’ll handle that when he’s back in town, Denny said as if he played matchmaker every day of the week. Can we get back to Angel? Mark said impatiently. There isn’t much more to tell. Denny shrugged. Lydia said that she hadn’t missed any work but was quiet. She told her that you two were no longer seeing each other, but she didn’t want to talk any further about it. I saw her from a distance in the cafeteria yesterday, and she looked kind of washed-out—like you, actually. Mark knew that he had dark circles under his eyes from lack of sleep. Not holding Angel each night had been a difficult adjustment. Add in the fact that he worried about her almost every hour of the day, and it wasn’t conducive to any type of relaxation. Mark pinched the bridge of his nose before opening his briefcase and attempting to distract himself with work. Let’s go through some of these messages that you e-mailed over this morning. It doesn’t have to be this way. Both of you are miserable without each other. Turn the plane around and go to her, Denny advised earnestly. Mark stared at his cousin, torn between the urge to hug him for caring and to choke him for meddling. Instead, he went the direct route that Denny couldn’t argue with. Has my situation changed at all in the last week? Denny knew what—or whom—he was talking about immediately. No, he answered quietly, not that I’m aware of.I can’t believe this is happening, I groaned. Closing my eyes, I leaned back in the seat and tried not to look as freaked out as I felt.

It won’t be so bad, Jack said. I mean, I’m not so bad, right?I can’t really say for sure.

What do you mean you can’t say? You’re a vampire. You know what it’s like to be one, I said incredulously.Yeah, but it’s different for everybody. He wanted to let it go with that, but I kept glaring at him until he continued. You already know the basics. I don’t even know what you’re trying to find out.

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