And then she’d retreated to the ladies’ room to bawl her eyes out.
Nicole pulled her hands out from under the cold water and pressed her fingers to her face. She was not going out there with puffy eyes. Hadn’t she humiliated herself enough already?
She’d told him she appreciated his help at the bar.
And he’d thought…
She blotted the mascara from her lower lids with the tips of her fingers. He was worse than a jackass. He was a snake. A pig. A wolf.
And she was a fool.
She ought to fire his butt.
But what if his stupid, cruel, crass remark was somehow her fault? Nicole raised her head and stared into the mirror. The author of Losing the Losers in Your Life made it clear that the actions of those around us were often reactions to our own signals, spoken and unspoken.
Had she inadvertently said the wrong thing? Sent the wrong message?
Her teeth dug into her lower lip. She had touched him, she remembered. Only on his arm, but…
He had nice arms. Lean and muscled, with strong wrists and warm skin under a dusting of dark hair. She had pressed his arm and looked up into those black, amused eyes and said—and said—oh, God. Her cheeks, her face, her whole body burned. I really need you here.
He probably thought she was coming on to him. Women did. All the time. She watched them. He probably thought that she was one of them.
And she knew what he was. She ought to know. If the University of Chicago had offered a degree in Men Behaving Badly, she would have graduated magna cum laude.
Nicole tore off a piece of toilet paper and blew her nose vigorously. Okay. She was an adult woman, fully responsible for how she felt. Mark was a typical unevolved clueless male. So wasn’t it up to her to set the tone of their relationship?
Of course it was.
This was all her fault, really, she thought, lashing herself with the old arguments. She had let things get out of hand. She had overreacted.
She balled up the tissue and threw it away. Tomorrow, she promised herself, she would do better.
If he didn’t think about her, he didn’t feel too bad.
Mark sent four glasses of house white to the ladies’ booth in the corner and slapped a couple of coasters on the bar for the next round of drafts.
The problem was it was hard not to think about her. The woman left evidence behind her everywhere, like a messy picnicker littering an unspoiled beach. Her menus on the tables. Her music on the jukebox. Her perfume in the air.
Even the damn coasters, with their fancy stylized logo, were her idea.
Three days had passed since he had brutally rejected her tentative thanks. She should be over it. So should he. Hell, this wasn’t the first time he’d been called a jackass. Or worse.
The real problem was, this time he felt like a jackass.
Mark filled two mugs, took another order, wiped the counter clean. As long as he was working, it was still his bar. Behind it, he was in control.
Until Nicole appeared from the kitchen, wearing one of those buttoned-down blouses and an I’m-going-to-be-nice-to-this-jerk-if-it-kills-me smile. He wanted to rip off the blouse. He wanted to dig behind that defensive smile and find…what, exactly?
Whatever she’d hidden away from him since he’d slapped her down the other night. The warm, vulnerable, hopeful woman under the ice boss routine.
She hovered just out of arm’s reach. “How’s it going out here?”
He could be nice, too, he decided. It wouldn’t kill him. Say something nice, he ordered himself.
But what came out of his mouth was, “We need a basket of cheese fries and one of those fancy sandwiches down at the end of the bar.”
He could have passed the ticket to the kitchen himself. He wasn’t that busy. Weekday lunchtime traffic was light: a couple of boat heads, an office birthday party, three or four suits looking to escape for an hour. Nothing he couldn’t handle.
He expected Nicole to point that out. But she nodded. “I’ll tell Louis.”
Fine. Good. Save him some steps.
But instead of letting it go, instead of letting her go, he put out a hand to stop her.
“What is it with you?” he asked.
Her brows arched. “Excuse me?”
“There you go again. ‘Excuse me,’” he mimicked savagely, keeping his voice low so that the suit at the end of the bar couldn’t hear. “You don’t have to be so polite all the time. This is a bar, not a damn tea party.”
“This is a bar,” she agreed steadily. Her pulse thrummed under his hand. “It is also a workplace. My workplace. Which requires a certain level of professional behavior from me.”
God, she was a trip. “So you’re just being…professional?”
Color stained her cheeks, but she didn’t back down. “I think it’s best.”
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