“I thought for sure her pride and joy would be the one person who could.”
Fighting a wave of something dark I’d rather not name, I struggle to maintain my normal steely composure. “My mother is the only person I can’t say no to.”
She gives me an odd, quizzical look. “The only person?”
“Yes, Ms. Smith. The only person.”
She frowns. “I’m sorry,” she says, and then waves me toward the door. “My car’s parked in a fifteen-minute spot. We’d better run before I get towed.” She turns and starts walking, expecting me to follow.
I stare after her. She’s sorry? What the hell does that even mean, and why do I have this intense need to race after her and ask, when I never run after anyone?
I catch up to Ms. Smith at the sliding doors, where a cold gust of October air blasts us.
She shivers and hugs herself. “I guess I shouldn’t have left my coat in the car.” She flicks me an amused look. “And I guess you’re too macho to need one?” She doesn’t wait for my reply, waving me forward yet again and declaring, “I’m freezing. Come on!” She takes off, running across the walkway to the parking garage.
For a moment I just stand there, watching this curvy, petite Barbie doll race away from me again. An irritated sound escapes my lips and I scrub my hand over my twelve-hour stubble before caving to the inevitable beginning of my pursuit. Chasing her. Again. I’m chasing this woman I barely know, who is supposed to be my employee.
I cross the roadway and fall into step with her. “I’m right there,” she says the instant she sees me, pointing at a black Mercedes.
Interesting. I assume the car means she’s done well at Riptide, though I’m not sure how she’d have had time to see the benefits. I don’t remember her at all from my most recent visit last month. Either way, her success is exactly what I want. It feeds more success, and the last thing I need right now, with my mother incapacitated, is a sales manager who doesn’t know how to close a deal.
Ms. Smith heads to the driver’s door and I follow, holding out my hand. “I’ll drive.”
She gives me a look like I’m insane. “You want to drive my car?”
She frowns. “No.”
Surprised, I reply, “I’m driving, Ms. Smith.” My tone is nonnegotiable, and I’m damned good at nonnegotiable.
But she isn’t rattled. Her brows dip and she actually begins to negotiate with me. “If I agree to this, then you have to agree to stop calling me ‘Ms. Smith.’ ” She makes quotation marks with her fingers. “That’s what people call my mother.”
I almost laugh. This woman is a piece of work. “You really don’t care that I’m temporarily your boss, do you?”
“Being my boss doesn’t allow you to drive my car, and I would think you’d want to call me by a name that makes me feel relaxed. I’m in sales. Feeling all edgy and nervous gives me performance anxiety.”
My lips quirk at her logic and her boldness. “And my calling you Ms. Smith makes you edgy and nervous?”
She studies me a moment and there’s this odd look on her face, like she’s somehow reading something I haven’t said. “I feel nothing you can’t solve by calling me Crystal.” She pauses and adds, “Mark.” The obvious challenge loses steam as she visibly shivers and makes a frustrated sound. “Fine. You drive.” She clicks the locks open, then dares to grab my hand and presses the keys into my palm. “I’m too cold to stand out here and debate name usage.”
She starts to pull away, and my instinct to automatically take control kicks in. I grab her hand, and her lips part in surprise, her gaze colliding with mine. Heat flares instantly between us, defying my certainty that this woman is absolutely not for me, twisting my gut in knots at the poor timing of such an attraction. There’s a hint of some unidentifiable emotion in her eyes that I try to read, but she cuts her gaze away, clearly attempting to block my efforts.
“Don’t wreck my car,” she warns, looking at me again.
“I won’t wreck your car,” I assure her and pause for effect, as she had, before adding, “Crystal.”
She smiles and my gaze is drawn to her mouth. Her lips are full, sensual. Kissable. They’re as interesting as she is, though I have no business finding anyone interesting anytime in the near future.
“Thank you,” she replies, mimicking my pause before again saying, “Mark.” She tugs on her hand and I let it go. With a dash, she goes around the trunk to the other side of the car.
I shake my head and, as impossible as it seems, I smile. My mood is remarkably lighter as I place my bags in the backseat and then slide into the car myself. She’s a refreshing glass of water when I’m drowning in hell, and, damn it, she smells good, too. A scent I can’t place, but it makes me think of the hot buttered rum my mother makes at the holidays.
“I guess you’re a control freak like your mother?” Crystal observes as I start the ignition.
I shake my head at her boldness again and glance at her. “Do you filter what you say at all?”
“Filtering makes other people filter, and then you never get to know them. I prefer to know who I’m dealing with.”
“As do I,” I agree. “I just approach things with a bit more subtlety.”
“Ohhh,” she laughs. “Is that it? I lack subtlety?”