Colette enjoyed the friendly working environment, but was often at loose ends, looking for things to do around the shop. If this continued much longer, she wondered how Susannah could justify keeping her on full-time.
It’d never been like that when she was with Dempsey Imports. If anything, she struggled to find enough hours for a personal life. It helped that Derek had worked swing shift; if he’d been home in the evenings he would’ve wanted her there, too. As it was, she often got home at eight or even later. She’d loved her job, thrived on it. She hadn’t realized how much she’d miss it until the day she’d seen Christian again. She missed being involved in such a dynamic enterprise and the challenges that came with it—and she missed him. She didn’t want to, hated herself for the attraction she felt, and yet no matter how hard she tried to ignore these feelings, they persisted.
Completely separate from their lovemaking was the fact that he’d gotten involved in something illegal. For that reason alone, she could never go back to work for him.
Susannah, who’d been in the back assembling a new-baby bouquet, joined Colette at the counter. “Seeing that it’s so slow, I think I’ll run a few errands.”
“Is there anything you need me to do here?”
Susannah shrugged. “Unfortunately, no.” Glancing down at her watch, she said, “I shouldn’t be more than an hour, two at the most, but I’ll have my cell with me.”
“I’m sure everything will be fine.”
“I’m sure it will, too.”
Susannah left, using the exit that opened into the alleyway. As if they’d coordinated the event, as soon as the back door closed, the front door opened—and in stepped Christian Dempsey.
At the hard look in his eyes, Colette knew. The INS had acted on the letter she’d written. It was inevitable that sooner or later he’d find out who’d done this. Her stomach heaved with dread.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” he said without greeting or preamble.
Colette’s mouth went dry. Instinct told her to play dumb, to pretend she didn’t understand what he was talking about. One glance told her he felt both angry and betrayed.
“You couldn’t have come directly to me?” he demanded when she didn’t respond.
Dredging up the courage to meet his eyes was difficult, but she managed. She clasped her hands behind her back to hide their trembling and shook her head.
“You got on my computer when I wasn’t there.” It wasn’t a question but a statement of fact, a fact that obviously infuriated him.
Colette felt she had to explain. “I needed the service code for—” She wasn’t allowed to finish.
“Who gave you my password?” His eyes were like burning coals. “My computer was off.”
“I f-found it.”
He didn’t seem to believe her.
“Who other than me could figure out where to look?” she asked. “I know just about everything there is to know about you,” she said and faltered because clearly she didn’t.
“Who else did you tell?”
“No,” she cried, clenching her fists. “How dare you come at me like this! I’m not the one—”
Again he cut her off. “That’s the real reason you resigned, isn’t it?”
She refused to answer him.
“You led me to believe it was about us and what happened at Christmas. That had nothing to do with it. That night was just a convenient excuse, wasn’t it?”
For an instant Colette saw a flash of pain in his eyes. It was immediately replaced with resentment.
Colette had questions of her own. “Why would you risk everything like this?” she asked quietly.
This time he was the one who refused to answer.
“I’ve thought this through a hundred times, and it makes no sense.” She gestured hopelessly, lifting both hands. “You have a profitable business in a growing market. You’re respected. I can’t understand what would compel you to take such a huge risk.”
“I can’t discuss this with you.”
“If not with me, then who?” she muttered.
“You think I should trust you?” he said. “Because of you I spent an unpleasant morning with a roomful of attorneys.”
“All I want to know is why,” she pleaded, needing some excuse, some explanation. “Is it the money?”
“I said,” he returned pointedly, “that I can’t discuss this with you.”
“Are you working for the INS?” That was the only possible reason that might explain his behavior. Or the only possible legal reason, anyway.
He didn’t respond, just looked at her, his gaze impassive.
Colette had so desperately wanted to believe this was the answer that she felt like crying. Instead the anger broke through. “Unless you’re here to place an order, I’m afraid I have to ask you to leave.” Rather than let him see how upset she was, she stood with her back straight, her shoulders square and her feet firmly planted. Her arms hung loosely at her sides.
After an interminable moment, Christian released a deep sigh.
She thought he’d leave then, but he continued to stand there, studying her. He no longer seemed so angry, and the change in his demeanor confused her. Curious and at the same time afraid, she reached for her pad and pen as if preparing to take his order.
“I asked myself over and over why you left the way you did,” he said at last. “Both of us made mistakes. Both of us reacted stupidly.”
“Now you know,” she said, doing her best not to be swayed by emotion. Colette had her answer. He’d gotten himself into a mess there was no getting out of. She couldn’t be involved with him. “I think you should go. And please don’t come here again.”
“Not even to order flowers?” he challenged.
With business so slow, Colette didn’t dare turn him down. “Perhaps you should deal with Susannah.”
“I prefer to deal with you.”
“Fine.” She poised the pen above the pad.
“I’ll take five dozen roses.”
Five dozen? Colette wasn’t sure she could even fill such a large order. “Where would you like these sent?” she asked as if it was perfectly normal to have a man walk in off the street and ask for five dozen roses.
“Make that ten dozen.”
She found it difficult to hide her reaction.
“I’m ordering flowers. You just told me I had to, otherwise you’d have me evicted from the shop. I imagine you’d call on your detective friend to help you do that.”
Colette remembered telling Christian about Steve Grisham but she didn’t recall mentioning his name or his rank. Now she regretted any reference to Steve. In fact, she hadn’t heard from him since their chance encounter on the waterfront. It was just as well; any relationship was sure to be complicated.
She bit her lip. “I didn’t threaten to kick you out,” she muttered wretchedly. “I just…suggested you leave.”
He merely raised his eyebrows in an annoyingly superior way.
“Would you like roses of any particular color?” she asked, as though nothing else had been said.
“Red,” he responded. “Blood-red. The best, most expensive roses available.”
“I’ll personally see that they’re the best available.” He was doing this purposely to hurt her. She’d hurt him and he was striking back, telling her there was someone else in his life. She’d been a one-night stand, and he was making sure she knew it.
He pulled a pen and pad from his briefcase and wrote something down. “Have the roses delivered to this address first thing tomorrow.”
He handed her the slip of paper. Ms. Elizabeth Sasser, she read. The address was on Capitol Hill.
Although Colette had worked for Christian for five years, she couldn’t remember his ever dating a woman named Elizabeth. But she’d been gone for more than two months now.
“Would you like to sign a card?” she asked, keeping her voice devoid of emotion.
Colette’s hand shook as she waited for him to write out the small card. He inserted it in the envelope, which he sealed, then scrawled Elizabeth across the front. Colette noticed that he’d chosen one of the more romantic cards.
“Will that be all?” she asked, struggling to maintain a professional facade.
“No, as a matter of fact, it won’t. I’d like roses delivered to Elizabeth every week.”
“For what period of time?” Christian went through women so quickly, she couldn’t imagine anyone lasting more than a few months, four or five on the outside.
“A year?” she repeated, too stunned to keep her mouth shut. She couldn’t have disguised her shock had she tried. So Christian was obviously in a serious relationship. He must be to go to this expense. As his personal assistant, Colette had ordered flowers for him dozens of times. She knew his routine; he generally ordered roses at the beginning of a relationship and again close to the end.
“Does that satisfy your demand that I do business or leave?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said curtly. She didn’t know whether to feel embarrassed at the way he’d outmaneuvered her—or sad about the connection that no longer existed.
“Is there anything else?” she asked after an awkward moment of silence.
His voice was almost tender, and she had the feeling this would be the last time she ever saw him. “How would you like to pay for this?” she asked, working hard to keep the pain out of her voice.
He answered by withdrawing his credit card and handing it to her.
When the slip printed out, she tore it off and gave it to Christian for his signature. He didn’t so much as blink at the amount, which was substantial.
“Take my credit card number and bill me weekly for the roses. Make sure they’re impressive.”
“I’ll see to them myself,” she promised and wondered why she should care.
He stared at her, and she squirmed under the intensity of his gaze. “I wish you’d come to me before you wrote that letter,” he said.
“I couldn’t.” Once she’d recognized what he was involved with, she had no option but to turn him in—even if she’d done it in the most cowardly possible way.
“I know,” he said, sounding genuinely regretful.
“Can’t you get out of it?” she pleaded.
Slowly he shook his head. “It’s not that easy. I never meant it to go this far, and now there’s no turning back.”
“I’m sorry, Christian. Can I do anything to help?”
He hesitated, his eyes holding hers. “I know it’s a ridiculous thing to ask, but would you have dinner with me?”
She couldn’t understand why he’d ask. “Is there any particular reason?”