“I can get my hands dirty when I want to.”

Her eyes twinkle devilishly. “I think I might like to see that.”


There’s a challenge beneath her words. For me to show her? I’d like to show her, but I won’t. I almost think she knows that, and is enjoying taunting me. “And I’d like you to tell me more about you.”

“Translation,” she replies, and flattens her hands on the table. “You want me to convince you that I can handle my job when you’re back in San Francisco and your mom is recovering.” She sits up straighter, as if preparing to give a speech, and delicately clears her throat. “Mr. Compton. I’d like to submit to you my qualifications as sales manager for Riptide.” She grins. “Beatles, baby. Doesn’t that say it all?”

I tilt my head to study her. “Beatles, baby?”

“I guess that just broke all your rules times ten.”

“Who says I have rules?”

She waves off my question. “Oh, please. You have so many rules, your rules have rules. Any woman who dared to date you would need an encyclopedia-sized book to keep up.”

“Any woman who dared date me?”

“Yes. You’re too good-looking and rich for anyone’s good. But I’m sure there are plenty of women who dare. They probably stand in line for a chance to read your rule book.”

From anyone else, being called good-looking and rich would be a compliment. I’m not sure with Crystal. I’m not sure of too much with this woman.

“But not you,” I say, certain that’s what she meant. No. She wouldn’t line up for anyone. She wouldn’t be that easy to conquer.

“I’m a control freak,” she readily admits. “You’re a control freak. We’d be like two bulls after the same red scarf.”

She’s right, and yet my blood pumps faster, just thinking about having her naked and willingly at my mercy. I can’t help but think she’s exactly what I need: a challenge. And how sweet her submission would be, because I’d really earned it.

But I won’t go there. Not with someone I work with, and absolutely not in the deep, dark hell I’m in right now. I’ll just think about it. Probably way too much.

Four

Crystal tells me stories about my mother over dinner, making me laugh. I don’t laugh a lot, but I have a soft spot for my mother. Maybe I have a soft spot for Crystal. I’m not really sure what I think about my reactions to her.

“So . . .” Crystal says, mopping up the last of her vanilla ice cream with a forkful of chocolate cake. “Why don’t you work here in New York?”

I drum my fingers on the table. “And here I thought you’d used such great restraint, not prying into my secrets.”

“So you admit you have secrets.”

She’s quick-witted. I like that about her. “We all have secrets.”

“Some more than others.”

I lean forward, lowering my voice. “And what are your secrets, Crystal?”

“They’re called secrets because they’re secrets,” she replies tartly, to put me in my place.

I’ve done my damnedest to keep my thoughts pure over dinner, but my c**k thickens with what I see as a challenge. Can I make her reveal all to me? Instantly, I’m delving into the deep, dark waters of desire for this taboo woman, wondering what it would take to learn her secrets. Wondering how she would handle me tying her up. That’s when you see what people are really made of.

“Back to you,” she directs, as if she’s in charge, when she absolutely is not. “And the question you avoided several times already. Why’d you leave New York?”

I lean back in my chair, putting distance between us and studying her, intrigued by how well she handles herself. It is both a natural gift and a conditioning of those skills by life lessons. I wonder what hers have been. “If I don’t tell you why I left, my mother will, which is one answer to your question,” I finally concede. “While my family is private about most things, they tend to make my life much more public than I prefer. Distance gives me privacy.”

“That’s not an answer.” Her tone is a schoolteacher reprimand. “It’s a side step of the question yet again.”

She’s right. I am sidestepping. My reasons for leaving New York run through a muddy history I try not to travel. I sure as hell don’t talk about it.

My cell phone rings, giving me a reprieve, and I glance at the screen and see Chris Merit’s number. It’s a call I need to take, yet dread answering for many reasons. Not only is he involved with what went down with Rebecca, he’s also deeply involved with a cancer research organization.

I hit the “answer” button, not bothering with “hello.”

“I hear you’re back in Paris.”

“I am. How are you holding up?”

Uncomfortable with where this conversation is going, I glance at Crystal and cover the phone. “Give me just a minute.”

“Of course,” she says and reaches for her wine. “I’ll just drink, since I handle it so well.”

So far she’s handled it just fine, I think, leaving the table so I can talk more privately. “I was going to call you,” I tell Chris, leaning on the bar with my back to Crystal. “I’m in New York. My mother has cancer.”

Silence ticks by for several heavy seconds. “What kind and what stage?”

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