I put the car in gear and back up before flicking her a look. “You’re direct.”

“I guess you could say I like directness probably as much as you like control.”

“In ten minutes you think you have me figured out?” I challenge.

“In ten minutes you think you have me figured out?” she counters.

I pull into to the payment line and cut her a sideways glance. “Who said I was trying?”

“Right.” Her lips twitch. “Of course you aren’t.”

“Spare me the effort,” I say. “Tell me about yourself.”

She shrugs. “Like what?”

“Where’s your family? Do you have siblings?”

“My family is here and I have two brothers, both of whom work for the family business.”

“Which is what?”

“My parents own Arial.”

I barely contain my surprise. “The monster technology company?”

“That’s right.”

I’m instantly concerned. No wonder she’s fearless. She doesn’t have to work or make a sale. Her family is why she has a Mercedes.

Has my mother’s illness caused her to make rash staffing decisions? I discard that idea. She just found out about her cancer a few days ago. I hope. Has she known longer and not told me? Is the cancer worse than she’s let on?

“. . . and I really like it,” Crystal says. “What about you?”

I shake off my thoughts. “Sorry. You like what?”

“I’ve lived here my whole life. I love New York. How about you?”

“I grew up here,” I reply absently. “Why exactly are you working for us and not Arial?”

“Aside from technology boring me to no end, I don’t want to ride my family’s coattails. I need my own life and my own achievements. And I need to do something I love. I love art and Riptide. And I love your mother. If ever there was a woman who can rule in a male-dominated world, it’s her.”

There was a quality sure to impress my mother. A woman set to make the world hers, not his, whoever he might be. Exactly what I don’t like, and everything she does like. “How long have you been at Riptide?”

“Three weeks.”

Which explains why I didn’t meet her on my last trip. “Tell me about those three weeks.”

We spend the rest of the drive talking about Riptide and her impressive coordination of the upcoming auction. I absorb myself in what she’s saying, and by the time we pull into the hospital garage, Crystal has successfully distracted me from thinking about the dreaded moment when I see my mother and face the reality I’ve never wanted to face: she’s not indestructible. It hits me now like a block of ice, and I feel frozen to the soul.

I turn off the car and the lights slowly dim. Darkness settles around us, but I don’t move. Silence fills the car before Crystal softly says, “She’ll be okay,” and her palm lightly settles on my shoulder, a warmth spreading through my body that I cannot fight, any more than I can bring myself to remove her hand. I let her touch me. I never let anyone touch me.

I grunt. “Right. Because she won’t have it any other way.” I mean it to come out a joke, but it comes out as grim as I feel. I open the door, not sure why I’ve let this woman I barely know see emotions I try never to feel, let alone allow anyone to experience with me.

Almost instantly she’s by my side, with an oversized purse half her size on her shoulder. I guess her to be all of five feet two, minus the four-inch heels she manages with practiced ease. “What hotel are you in?” she asks, smartly dropping the topic of my mother.

“The Omni off Madison.”

“Good choice,” she approves. “Close to Riptide and out of the Times Square crush.”

She astounds me. Not only do I not ask for people’s approval, they usually don’t offer it voluntarily. But for reasons I don’t understand, I don’t tell her so. I just don’t seem to have it in me to care who’s on top right now.

When I enter the hospital room, I find my mother sitting up in the bed with her back to me, arguing with my father. “You give his arm too much credit. He needs the cool calm that Mark had on the mound to be a real player.”

The reference to a past I don’t want to remember, or announce to Crystal, makes me quickly change the topic. “Are you telling Dad how to run his ball team again, Mom?”

My mother turns around, her long blond hair bouncing with the curls she meticulously creates each morning, her blue eyes lighting on me. “Mark!” She holds her arms open and I go to her, sitting on the bed to wrap her in a hug. Over her shoulder, my gaze meets my father’s worried one. His light brown hair is rumpled and strain is etched in his features, the lines framing his steely gray eyes deeper than they were a month ago. He’s shaken, which shakes me, but I don’t show it. They need me to be the rock I’ve always been.

My mother pulls back to inspect me, as she always does. She looks good, still ten years younger than her fifty-five years, and as strikingly beautiful as ever. How can she have cancer? How can she be in this bed?

“And for your information, son,” she scolds, “I’m looking out for your father. I want him to get the seven division championships in a row he hopes for, and he won’t get it with his present pitcher.” She turns to my father. “Steven, I insist you show Mark the practice tapes. He’ll see what I mean.”

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones Inside Out Romance
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