My lips twitch. “How about it, indeed.” I motion her onward and this time we fall into step together. This dinner is absolutely going to be the much-needed distraction from the hell going on in my head—exactly what I’d hoped for.
A few minutes later, I’m seated across from Crystal inside the hotel-sponsored Fireside restaurant at a corner table. Seated behind the rectangular bar with snowball-shaped glowing lights dangling above it, we’re secluded from the rest of the patrons, just as I’d hoped. I want this woman to myself, if only for an hour.
“Have you ever eaten here?” she asks, setting her phone on the table and her purse in the extra chair next to her. “The food is good. It’s not far from the gallery I used to work at.”
“I have,” I tell her. “And yes, it is. How do you feel about wine?”
“I love it, but I’m a lightweight so it’s not a good idea.”
“Maybe it will loosen you up and you’ll tell me all about yourself.”
She snorts and somehow it’s delicate and feminine, even sexy, when normally I would find it unrefined. “Do I really seem like I need loosening up? Because that’s a first. I’m me, no matter what, and I make no apologies for that. And what specifically do you want to know that I haven’t already told you?”
Everything, I think, but the waiter stops beside me before I can offer her my edited version of that answer. I glance at the wine menu and then at her. “Red wine okay?”
“I prefer white, but I have to drive, so I’d better pass.”
Ignoring her objection, I order a merlot I’m particularly fond of and send the waiter on his way. “I’ll get you a car to take you home and pick you up in the morning.”
She holds up her well-manicured hands. “You don’t have to—”
“I don’t do anything because I have to, Crystal.”
“Crystal,” she repeats. “Why do I feel it’s such an accomplishment for you to use my first name?”
“I don’t know? Why?”
Her brow furrows. “You really do like word games, don’t you?”
She holds up a finger. “See. Answering a question with a question. Word games.” Her phone rings and she snatches it up and her eyes brighten. “It’s my Beatles man. Calling rather than emailing has to mean good news.”
I listen to the smooth, charming way she greets her customer and the impressive way she navigates her side of the exchange. She’s a master of conversation, but I knew that already. I’m not beyond seeing how she’s worked her magic on me.
The waiter returns with our wine and pours some into my glass for me to test the vintage when Crystal covers the phone and whispers, “He won’t ship the items. He says we have to pick them up.”
I sample the wine and give the waiter the go-ahead to fill both of our glasses. “Tell him we’ll insure them.”
“He axed that idea before I even got it out. He says it isn’t good enough.” She crinkles her nose. “He’s a little eccentric.”
Eccentric artists and collectors are my life. “Where’s he located?”
“If it’s worth my time, I’ll go pick up the items myself.”
“Perfect.” Her attention goes back to her call. “How about I arrange the pickup and call you tomorrow?” She listens a moment, and repeats what she said to me. “Yes. I’ll talk to you then.” Setting her phone back onto the table, she grins. “Done. We have a deal.”
“I take it you feel the travel is worth my time?”
“I had the items valued by a Beatles expert. They’re costing us a hundred thousand dollars.” She lifts her wine and holds it out to me. “They’re worth double.”
“Impressive,” I say, and touch my glass to hers. “Sounds like we need to feed his eccentric demands.”
We both sip our wine.
“Hmm,” she says. “This is excellent, but”—she sets her glass on the table—“I have to drive. I really can’t drink.”
“I’ve already told you I’d get you a car service.”
“I just bought the wine. I can’t drink it alone.”
“Yes, but Mark—”
“You’re staying,” I insist, and I’m amazed by how much I like my name on her lips, when I’m used to Mr. Compton or Master. I like it. I like it a hell of a lot.
She purses those too-tempting lips and then sighs. “Fine.” She reaches for her glass. “But if you’re hoping to find out some deep, dark secrets about me that somehow make me a bad employee, you won’t. Not even with the grape in me.” She takes a drink and casts me a coy look. “But I might try to find out yours.”
“You can try. Others certainly have.”
“But you’ve never had me try.”
“No,” I agree. “I’ve never had you try.” And since I’m adamant about my privacy, why do I want her to try?
The waiter returns in the midst of my contemplation and we order dinner. When we’re alone again, Crystal digs into the warm bread he’s left us and I’m drawn to how uninhibited she is. Her lack of walls and barriers must be why I find myself so comfortable with her.
“A hamburger, Mr. Compton?” she queries. “How very rustic of you.”