She hikes her bag onto her shoulder, thrusting her chest out in the process, and my gaze drops to the high neckline of her dress, the material hugging her in all the right places as she walks toward me.

She stops in front of me. “How’s your mother?”

“Putting on a show of bravery she doesn’t feel.”

With a grim nod, she agrees. “Yeah. I kind of got that, too.”

For a few moments I just stare down at her, puzzled by this woman in too many ways to count. “You seem rather fond of my family, for someone who’s only known them for three weeks.”

“Actually,” she corrects, “I met your mother at a Riptide auction I attended with my father and brother about a year ago. I’d been working at a small gallery a few blocks from Riptide and we sort of became friends.” She smiles with a memory, and it’s genuine in a way so few are. “When the sales manager’s job came open, your mother all but tied me to the desk and insisted I take it.”

I could think of a lot of places to tie this woman up, and none of them are to a desk, though that holds interesting potential. “I’m surprised it took her a year to hire you.”

“I’m as stubborn as she is, and I thought we’d have issues working together. But it turns out we’re a great team.”

“Seems that way,” I agree, having seen how fond my mother is of her. I motion to the exit. “Ready?”

She nods. “If you’re ready, I’m ready.”

My lips twitch. “That’s the most agreeable you’ve been since I met you.”

She grins. “Don’t get used to it.”

I pull the Mercedes up in front of my hotel, and I have no desire to be alone with my thoughts. “Come in,” I tell Crystal. “I’ll buy you dinner.”

“That’s not necessary.”

“I don’t remember saying, or thinking, it was,” I reply. When her eyes meet mine, for some reason I know that she feels like an obligation and it bothers her. Why would she assume such a thing? Who has made her feel that way? Nudging her, I add, “I’m not looking forward to staring at a hotel room wall for the next few hours. Spare me that, please.”

The valets open her door and mine. “You told your mother you’re tired,” she reminds me, then laughs. “And she seemed to think you look that way, too.”

My brows lift. “That may be true. But it still doesn’t mean I can sleep.” It’s an admission I normally wouldn’t make. I seem to be doing a lot of things with this woman I wouldn’t normally do, and I’m not sure if that’s because of her or me.

She considers me a moment, then smiles. “Well, I am hungry.”

“Good,” I say, more pleased than I should be by the prospect of a simple shared dinner as we exit the car. But I really don’t want to be alone with my thoughts, and my normal outlets to escape are back in San Francisco, in the club I own.

We head inside the typical high-end hotel of marble and glass, and I pause in the entryway to give the doorman a hefty tip. “Make sure my bag is in my room when I get there later tonight.” He quickly nods, eager to oblige, and I turn to Crystal. “Let me check in so I don’t have to deal with it later.”

“Of course,” she agrees, and she motions to a couple of chairs. “I’ll be right here.”

A few minutes later, I’m done registering and I find Crystal with her head buried in her laptop again, so absorbed in her work that she has no idea I’ve stopped in front of her.

“Ms. Smith,” I say.

Her gaze lifts and snaps to mine. “Crystal, or I’m not having dinner with you.”

My lips quirk, and I’m remarkably amused by her spunk. “What are you working on?”

“I’m this close,” she says, holding her fingers up barely parted, “to snagging a couple of super-rare Beatles items for the next Riptide auction. I’m exchanging emails with the guy we’d be buying from.”

“Beatles, huh?”

“Yes,” she says, shutting her computer and shoving it into her purse. “It might not be art, but these items will bring in big money.”

“You won’t see me complaining about money,” I assure her. “Shall we go eat?”

She pushes to her feet but I don’t step back to give her space. We’re toe to toe, and I can’t seem to find a reason, aside from her being off-limits, to find this a problem. I’m in no hurry to move, either. Instead, I inhale that warm rum scent of hers. It is addictive. Damn, I like that smell.

“I’m ready,” she says, prodding me to move. “Starving, actually.”

Yes—starving. I’m starving. For her. So much so that I have to force myself to finally step back and give her room to walk. “Never let it be said I kept a starving woman waiting.” I usually do keep my women starving and waiting, just not for food. I’m not so sure this one would allow that, though, which should be a complete turn-off. It isn’t. It’s more of a challenge.

“You like word games,” Crystal observes.

I tilt my head slightly. “What did I say to merit that observation?”

“It’s what you didn’t say,” she replies, “and yet it’s in the air. That unspoken hidden meaning to a lot of what you say and do.”

“You are direct, aren’t you?”

“We’ve already established that. And that I’m hungry, so feed me. How about it?”

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones Inside Out Romance