Crystal has a plan to defeat the conceited, arrogant man who has always bested her.
|Crystal Nolan quivered as Derek Hauser sauntered into the lobby of The Hotel Ramsey. That self-assured, languid manner of his irked, and remembering her dad's advice, Crystal took three calming breaths to steady nerves and strengthen resolve. Eyes glued to her lap, she waited for the calculated moment before standing to greet the enemy.
His footsteps landed firm and quiet on the plush carpeting, but Crystal felt the subtle vibrations tingling beneath her shoes. Even from ten feet away, he aroused her. No matter. After tonight, she would break the stranglehold he so effortlessly wielded.
Their parents had been best friends. She and Derek grew up together, attended the same schools, same Ivy League college. Crystal graduated cum laude, Derek, summa cum laude. He bested her in everything. Two months separated them, and, of course, Derek entered the world two months before Crystal. At thirty-four years old, the rivalry Derek instilled in her bordered on ridiculous, but because his lanky, predatory stride, close-cropped hair, and demanding presence thrilled—her world tilted every time.
Flawlessly timed and executed, Crystal rose, chin high, shoulders back, extending one hand. Derek, more focused on his ringing cell, leaned in and pecked one cheek, oblivious to the glitter in Crystal's eyes. He let her wait, while he engaged in a whispered exchange that lasted several minutes. After pocketing the phone, he tipped his head. "Crystal."
Before speaking, she vanquished the fury gripping her, and assuming a superior air, gestured to the matching red leather chair opposite hers, the mahogany cocktail table in between a solid reassurance, defining boundaries. After slipping into her seat, she leaned back, crossing legs, revealing long, elegant calves, sculpted by Pilates routines.
"Derek, I appreciate you meeting me on such short notice. It's what, going on a year now, since we've seen each other?" Making no attempt to hide her interest, Crystal checked out Derek from head to toe, examining not only the man, but his cosmopolitan affectation. Under her scrutiny, Derek turned to hide the bulge in his trousers, too late. Crystal pretended to adjust the hair clip to disguise a smirk, choosing to ignore the obvious, instead provoking him by focusing on one intimate detail. "Your shirt cuffs aren't monogrammed. Thinking of meeting me got you all hot and bothered? You had to buy a new shirt at the hotel for our meeting? How sweet." She sucked in her breath, regretting her waspish words.
The Hotel Ramsey offered more than posh boutiques, merchandised with designer clothes. The lavish furnishings, discrete staff, and air of intimacy, added up to the perfect combination for discrete trysts. Crystal shook off the vision threatening to disarm her battle plan. Secret trysts, indeed.
"I didn't buy the shirt in the hotel just for you, Crystal. Not all my cuffs are monogrammed. Looks to me like you're the one with problems. Your skirt's a bit snug in the ass." Derek leered, and struggled to fit his frame into the chair designed for appearances, not comfort.
Crystal leaned forward and turned in her seat, letting Derek have a good long look at what was under her blouse. "The skirt is custom-made."
"Let me see."
Crystal stood, her back to him, and looked over her shoulder. Derek half-rose and raised his hand as if to smack her butt. When Crystal flinched and retreated to the safety of her chair, he laughed.
"Back off, Derek. I'm not here for fun and games."
"You're an easy read, Little Miss Crystal. My presence inflames you." Derek loosened his tie and undid the top button on his shirt.
"You don't know me from page one." They'd been a hot item five years ago, back when Derek cherished and adored her, knew her not only from page one, but all the way back into her childhood and forward into the endless beyond. Then that bitch Calista Salazar waltzed into their lives, and her exotic Latino demeanor and appearance spun Derek's head. He broke off the engagement and moved on. Still, he clouded her mind, and she allowed him to shatter her self-esteem, forever battling the underlying feral attraction smoldering in the past. She bit the inside of her cheek, replacing useless warmth with the chill of pain.
"Well, Little Miss"—Derek crossed his legs—"something you want to discuss, or you called to annoy? No, I get it, any excuse to see me."
Crystal seethed at his nickname for her. She wanted to smack him right across that smug face. Or reach out and smooth the slight scar on his chin. The dueling emotions wrenched her. But, Derek Hauser owed her, and worse than owing her, he knew it, but refused to give in. Well, tonight she was exacting her pay. A little boutique in Paris might settle the score.
"Derek, I took the liberty of ordering a beverage for you. Coffee's on the way."
Derek never drank coffee. He liked whiskey on the rocks and denying him excited and frightened her. Derek commanded the world around him with masculine prowess, and Crystal dared disrupt his kingdom. Women thought him San Francisco's most eligible bachelor, when Crystal knew him to be San Francisco's most eligible jerk.
The coffee arrived in exquisite, gold-rimmed china cups nestled on delicate saucers. Crystal, sipping the steaming beverage, enjoyed watching Hauser struggle to balance the cup on his thigh. A splash flooded the saucer and she yawned to smother a giggle. Then, forsaking all bantering, she launched the first strike.
"Derek, last time I was in Paris, I saw the cutest little boutique up for sale. I need the seed money and was wondering if your bank is willing to cut me a small loan?" A sparkling excitement in Crystal's eyes flashed, but she dropped her eyelids, like closing the blinds on a bright day. Crystal snapped open her briefcase—a hand-crafted piece gifted from her dad years ago—pulled out a sheaf of documents, and arranged them on the table separating their chairs.
"Paris? What the hell were you doing in Paris?"
"You were in New Zealand when I returned, but your assistant prepared the loan application." She eased a stack beyond the midway neutral zone and into her opponent's territory on the other side of the table, growing edgy and anxious to seal the deal. "Just sign the damn document."
Derek flicked an invisible piece of dust from his sleeve. He consulted his Rolex, adjusted the knees of his trousers and waited, eyebrows raised.
Crystal recognized the stubborn set of his jaw, and reconsidered her words, mortified that her plan might falter because of one petulant blurb arousing his suspicion. "Acquiring that boutique is more than good business, Derek. I need the diversion, away from—" Her lips compressed into a straight line, stilling the truth.
"You're angry because I refuse to publish your book? I mean, I know my dad promised, but I own 'Hauser Publishing,' and I call the shots. Your book's a piece of romantic goo."
Crystal's body tensed, but she squashed the desire to rocket to her feet and throttle the man. "You owe me Derek."
"I don't even owe you a good-bye." He stood, adjusted his shirt and tie and pulled out his cell phone. "Charles, please bring the BMW around. I'm leaving now."
"Wait, Derek." Crystal was on her feet before she realized it. She placed a hand on his elbow. "Please, just hear me out."
He stared at her hand until she withdrew it, tucking it behind her back.
"It's just, after the accident—"
"Stuck in a rut of depression? Geez, Crys, I thought you saw a shrink. Tell me you don't sit and cry at night, wondering if they took your dad's Lear, not my dad's—" Derek cringed. Some nights he cried. En route to Brazil, his dad's Lear crashed and killed both sets of parents. At least they never suffered. They left that to the warring adult children.
"Crystal, I . . . I loved your parents the same as my own. I avoid you because in your eyes I see ghosts, like empty cars on a train. I know their death derailed you, same as me. I'm . . . uh . . . sorry."
Time stopped. Crystal drew in a shuddering breath. This was the Derek she loved before that woman stole him. Was he still seeing Calista?
Derek reached over and captured her hands. "You're trembling."
"I'm not." Ever since the break-up, she'd been drifting, longing always for his full attention eclipsing and enveloping her. Not this solitary existence endured every day. Surely he saw her need.
Derek leaned forward and caressed her face from temple to chin. "My precious Crystal, how I miss you. I"—
A shrill argument in the lobby shattered the moment. Derek released her hand, but not before a comforting squeeze. Crystal stroked the back of her palm, still warm from his embrace, abandoned again, wondering what was on his mind. An apology? A declaration of love?
He cleared his throat and returned to business. "What about 'The San Francisco Herald'? You can't go chasing after Switzerland"—
Crystal took a few breaths to compose herself. "Paris, Derek, not Switzerland," she sighed. Derek the Romantic had vanished.
"Yeah, whatever. 'The Herald' was your dad's baby. He lived on those pages. You belong here." Derek tapped his finger on the table to punctuate the last word.
What did he mean by 'belonging here'? Considering the risk in this game, love could be a weapon. Crystal toughened up. "You worry about your inheritance—the bank and 'Hauser Publishing'—and I'll worry about mine." She withdrew into the back of the chair, settled her shoulders, and crossed her legs.
"You're looking delectable today"—
How does he switch so fast? Back to the games between us. She let his eyes roam and ravish her body.
—"why?" His eyes narrowed.
"Don't flatter yourself. I did not dress with you in mind. I'm meeting . . . someone . . . in a few hours." Crystal fiddled with the diamond catch on her cashmere sweater, drawing attention to her décolletage. "Of course, Derek, I understand if your bank's financials don't look solid and you consider me a risk."
When Derek vaulted to his feet, his knee banged the table, knocking the coffee tray to the floor, china shattering in the aftermath. "Don't try to play me, Crystal. You know the integrity of my bank."
A steward materialized and whisked away the evidence of Derek's dark side. Guests' heads swiveled in their direction. The staff member returned with the hotel manager, who righted the angle of the chair.
"Is there a problem?" The two employees shifted their eyes back and forth between the couple, gauging the intensity of the disagreement, prepared to eject them from the sanctity of the hotel. Crystal and Derek apologized in unison and the confrontation dissipated. In the public's eye. They both tugged the invisible band that kept them tethered one to the other. Derek broke eye contact first and sat down.
Crystal shifted sideways in her chair and tugged on her skirt. She adjusted the strap on her shoe, gifting Derek a flick of potential.
"Let me see those documents." He snatched them up and flipped through the pages of the contract.
"Make sure you pay attention to the fine print."
"Yeah, sure. You been yammering at me for, what—like an hour? You said the papers are in order? Prepared and approved by my staff?" He paused and frowned. Crystal held her breath. "What's this 'Too Hot to Handle'"?
I'm too hot to handle, you idiot. "Oh, that's a rough translation for the name of the shop. You know, French to English. It's difficult."
Derek drummed his fingers on the table and pursed his lips. He cast Crystal a sideways glance. "You did say my staff approved this?"
Crystal put on her best little girl pout and nodded.
"You don't have to look injured, Crystal." Derek scrawled his signature on the final page.
A crooked curve turned up one side of Crystal's lips and she tipped her head.
"Crystal, I don't like that look."
"I thought you knew everything about Little Miss Crystal, Derek."
He leaned forward across the table, careful not to rap his thigh again. He tapped Crystal's nose. "Explain yourself."
"I'm proud of you—you ended this silly battle. I can't wait to see 'Too Hot to Handle' on the bestseller list."
"Proud of me? Silly battle?" Derek shook his head. "I don't get it." A cell phone rang, the elevator pinged, a hotel phone buzzed. Derek's brow furrowed. "Wait, you said 'Too Hot to Handle' was the name of the shop in Paris."
"Did I? I do apologize if you misunderstood. 'Too Hot to Handle' is the title of my book." Crystal leaned back in her chair and popped a finger in her mouth.
"What? You tricked me into signing a contract to publish your rubbish?" Derek snapped his fingers, summoning a waiter. "Whiskey, straight up."
Crystal caught the waiter's eye and signaled the same for herself. "Me, silly Little Miss Crystal?" She stood, walked around the coffee table and poked him in the chest. "Let me make this crystal clear. My novel will make 'Hauser Publishing' a fortune, and me." She flaunted a grin. "And that little boutique? No such place."
"The shop in Switzerland? You made it up?"
"France, Derek." She shook her head and laughed. "So much for your business acumen and instincts—incinerated by Little Miss Crystal."
"You misled me. The document I signed has nothing to do with a bank loan. The contract is invalidated. End of discussion. Derek crossed his arms and sat back in the chair. "I win."
"Wrong, Derek. I presented the contract, and you signed after a cursory read. Not my fault."
Derek leaned forward and his words came from behind clenched teeth. "You lied to me."
Crystal stood and looked up toward the door. She smiled and waved her hand.
The head of the Board of Directors at Hauser Publishing walked toward her and consulted his pocket watch. "Crystal, enchanted, as always." He kissed the air above her hand.
"Nice to see you, Mr. Baxter. Thank you for coming."
"Please, Crystal, we're friends. Call me Bruce."
Derek's eyebrows shot sky high.
"Derek, you're looking good." Mr. Baxter clapped Derek's back. "I'm puzzled, though. Crystal asked me to stop by. She thought there might be a problem with you approving her book. Frankly, I was shocked to discover you had not honored your father's request."
"Derek, you and I are not on a first name basis." Mr. Baxter scowled, and Derek cut Crystal with a scathing glance.
"Pardon me, sir." Derek adjusted his tie and smoothed out his jacket. "Please join us." He lifted a hand to summon more drinks and an extra chair. Once Mr. Baxter was situated, Derek tossed back another shot, and then plunked the glass on the table. "Crystal has a confession."
"I do?" Crystal tucked a lock of ebony hair behind a diamond-accentuated ear. "Why, whatever do you mean?" She looked at Mr. Baxter and shrugged, delicate and elegant.
Derek leaned forward and braced elbows on his knees. He pointed straight at Crystal. "Tell him how you deceived me."
Crystal shrunk back in her chair and splayed aristocratic fingers under her chin, index finger resting in the hollow of her neck. "It's impolite to point fingers at people."
"Don't lecture me on manners." Derek clasped his hands together and flexed his fingers. "You told me you needed financing to purchase a shop in France."
"I made no such request." Crystal straightened her back and lifted her chin.
"Derek." Mr. Baxter's eyebrows formed a caterpillar line across his brow. "Why would Crystal need money? She's a multi-millionaire."
"Precisely." Crystal turned her head away from Mr. Baxter and winked at Derek, who was busy clenching and unclenching his fists. "Mr. Baxt— Bruce. I have the contract right here."
"Thank you, dear." He shuffled through the papers, peering at every signature and initialized line. "Looks in order to me. What's this about a shop in Paris?"
Crystal softened her eyes and addressed Mr. Baxter. "Derek's had one too many drinks. He's confused." She looked at Derek and mouthed "I won."
Derek changed tactics. "I'm a little off my game. The contract was drawn up while I was working abroad."
"Working abroad? That's what you call it?" Crystal's Gucci bag was on her lap and she pulled out a smart phone. "First, your signature is a mere formality. Second—" she tapped a few buttons, and then handed the tablet to Derek.
He snatched it, mid-air. "What's this?"
"A log of attempted communication during negotiations." Crystal moved his hand so the screen was visible to both men. "Here's a few: January 5th, Austria. March 15th, Japan. April 7th, New Zealand."
Derek opened his mouth to protest, but Crystal held up a hand. She tapped her lips with a red, manicured fingernail. "Let me guess. Skiing in Austria—consorting with a geisha girl in Japan—surfing in New Zealand." Derek's face reddened. "Um-hmm. Just as I suspected. Working? More like playing."
She fought to diminish the flush heating her body. His personality filled the room. More than anything, she wanted to stop arguing, drag him by the tie, if necessary, upstairs and . . . She forced the fantasies from her mind.
Mr. Baxter stood and cleared his throat. "I don't know what game the two of you are playing today." He looked from one to the other before pinning Derek. "Derek, I'm disappointed in you. Your father would be ashamed if he knew about your playboy antics, while Miss Nolan was working so hard to tidy up your incompetence."
"Mr. Baxter, I assure you—"
"Good day, Derek." Mr. Baxter nodded his head and turned away.
"Crystal, I'm sorry the situation turned ugly. Derek has some explaining to do. I apologize for his brutish behavior and I expect he will apologize to you, as well." Mr. Baxter kissed the air on both sides of Crystal's face. He leveled a look at Derek, who flinched.
Crystal watched Derek struggle to regain control of the situation. Of her. He stood up and paced, tugged at his tie, rubbed his face. "I—"
"You want the whole world, don't you, Derek? Well, not today." She picked up her briefcase and resisted sticking out her tongue. "What you can have is a complimentary signed edition of 'Too Hot to Handle.'"
"Crystal, this isn't over, you know. I'm not finished with you."
Was that a whisper of longing in his voice? Crystal's heart thrilled, but she tipped her head and winked at Hauser, playing it off. "Oh, but I'm quite finished with you." She swiveled on her heel and sashayed through The Hotel Ramsey's revolving door, fervently wishing.
Derek gets even "Too Hot to Handle Part 2 "