She pushes her tousled blond hair out of her face. “Alpha man. Control freak. Type A personality, which I share. Whatever you want to call it, it’s you. Anyway, try the drink. The place I got it from is a block away and open twenty-hour hours. It’s really pretty good.”

Already my resolve to keep a distance from her is crumbling. Her outrageously bold personality seems to work for me. “Considering the time change and the early hour, I can certainly use the caffeine. Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” she says, holding up her keys for me.

I take them from her, thinking her pleasure is exactly what I’d like to discover. Once we’re in the car, she keeps me talking and I let her. Anything to keep my own thoughts at bay.

Thirty minutes later, I stand by my mother’s bedside and lean down to her. “You’re going to be okay.”

She grabs the back of my head and pulls me close. “Yes,” she vows. “I will.” She hugs me so tightly, I feel like she’s clinging to me for dear life.

My eyes burn and my chest is on fire. She releases me and I lift my head to find Crystal standing in the doorway. There’s no hiding how emotional I feel, and I don’t even try. This woman is seeing parts of me I show no one. Parts I’m not sure I believed existed anymore, and I’m beyond stopping her. She’s too present. Too deeply embedded in my family’s life. This is why I need to be in San Francisco. It’s why I left.

The doctor enters and sends us on our way, so I give my mother another kiss, leaving my father alone with her. Out in the hallway I walk to the waiting room and sit down, letting my head drop into my hands, elbows on my knees.

I feel Crystal next to me. And then her hands are in my hair, she is touching me, and I don’t push her away. There is tenderness and comfort in her touch, comfort I swear I don’t need . . . and yet I do.

Slowly, I lift my head and look at her, staring into those pure, blue eyes, and feel like my heart’s being ripped from my chest. I feel something for this woman. I swore I’d never feel anything for anyone again, and for ten years I’ve managed to hold to that vow. Now, though . . . I am lost and she has found me.

“Three hours,” she whispers. “It seems like forever, but it’ll be fast. She’ll be out of surgery and feisty as ever, telling you how things are, and ruling the world.”

I laugh humorlessly. “Please let that woman make my life hell for another hundred years.”

Crystal smiles. “Don’t you worry. She’ll outlive us both.” She reaches into her purse and grabs a deck of cards. Then she moves a small table and sets it in front of me before pulling a chair up opposite. “Let’s play. What’s your game?”

This is another part of my past I don’t want revealed, and I’m suddenly aware of how exposed I am with this woman. Too exposed. “I don’t play cards.”

“Oh, come on. You’re human. You play cards.”

“No, Ms. Smith. I do not.”

“Crystal,” she corrects softly, “and if that’s true, then there’s no better day to learn. It’ll occupy your mind, which I happen to know is too sharp to remain inactive for the next three hours.”

“I’d rather discuss the auction coming up.”

“Poker? Why, yes, I’d love to play.”

I glance up to find my father, and it’s impossible to miss how bloodshot his eyes are. He grabs a chair and pulls it between mine and Crystal’s. He lifts his Styrofoam coffee cup. “Nothing better than coffee and poker, except beer and baseball.” He glances at Crystal. “Look out, darlin’. Mark was a damn good player back in his college days. He was the undefeated champion. If not for—”

“Dad,” I warn, stopping him and then looking at Crystal. “Deal.”

She studies me a moment. “Whatever you want, Mr. Compton.”

And damn if I don’t correct her. “Mark. My name is Mark.”

Three hours later I’ve won every hand of poker, and my father and Crystal are laughing as they team up against me and threaten to count cards.

“That’s only done in Blackjack,” I remind my father.

“Mr. Compton?” a man says.

We all rise and turn toward the doctor who’s standing in his scrubs, his mask on his chest, looking calm. Every muscle in my body eases. “She’s doing well,” he reports, and my shoulders slump, the tension sliding from my weary body, as he adds, “You can see her soon.”

I glance down at Crystal, who smiles at me. And for the first time in days, I truly breathe again.

I’m still talking to the doctor when Crystal gets a call. By the time the doctor departs, she’s grabbing her purse and walking toward me. “I need to run over to Riptide. Can you please tell your mother I was here and I’ll be back as soon as can?”

“Is there a problem?”

“Nothing I can’t handle.”

“What’s wrong, Crystal?”

She surprises me by reaching out and pressing her hand to my chest. “Trust me, please. Go be with your mother. I won’t let you, or your parents, down.”

Heat radiates from the place she touches, and yet I’m frozen in place. “I don’t trust easily.”

Her fingers curl on my chest. “I suspect you don’t trust ever.”

“And yet you’re asking me to trust you.”

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones Inside Out Romance