“You want—” Her voice breaks. She’s breathless now, and I know this is it. I’ve got her.
I feel a little twinge deep inside—one that I might identify as disappointment if I ever let myself hope for anything—but I ignore it. This is exactly what I wanted, after all. “You want something sweet and hot?”
“That is how I like my coffee.” Among other things, my look tells her. Not that I’m cheesy enough to say shit like that. But I can imply with the best of them.
Ophelia’s eyes are a little hazy now, a little unfocused, but she nods jerkily. Then, before I can say anything else, she heads over to the espresso machines and fumbles around for a minute or two. She doesn’t look toward me once, and when she comes back, she’s carrying a large glass of iced coffee.
Confused, I look back and forth between her and the drink. “That doesn’t look very warm,” I finally tell her.
“Yeah, well, I made an executive decision. It looked like you needed something to cool yourself down with.” And then it’s her turn to lean over the counter. I have a quick second to curse the turtleneck—I’d really love to see what this girl’s tits look like—right before she dumps the coffee all over the front of my pants.
He doesn’t react right away. And when he does, it’s not at all the way I expect.
Maybe it’s the insulated snowboarding pants or maybe it’s his too-cool attitude, but Z doesn’t screech or yell or even curse. He just looks at me, that too-gorgeous-for-his-own-or-anyone-else’s-good face of his frozen in surprise. Whether it’s because I dumped the drink on him or because he’s finally figured out that I played him, I don’t know and I don’t care. All that matters is he gets the message and leaves me the hell alone.
Still, some instinct deep inside me whispers that not much surprises him. The fact that I did makes me happier than it should.
And then he smiles, and I know I’m right. Because it isn’t that come-sit-on-the-big-bad-wolf’s-lap-and-let-him-take-a-little-bite-out-of-you smile that he leveled at me a few minutes ago, the one that weakened my knees and nearly melted my brain cells along with those of every other female in the vicinity. No, this is a real smile. A genuine grin ripe with amusement, speculation, and something else I can’t even begin to identify.
But whatever that unknown thing is, I’ve been around the block enough to know that I’m in trouble. That this meeting probably won’t end well between us. At least not for me.
Still, what was I supposed to do? Stand here with my heart pounding and my knees knocking together like some kind of ripe-for-the-picking damsel in distress?
Throw myself at him like every other girl in a hundred-mile radius does?
Let him think I’m going to be just another notch on his snowboard?
I don’t think so.
I did what had to be done, nipped his totally impersonal pursuit in the bud before it got completely out of hand. It’s not that I think I’m in any danger of falling for him—rich, pretty boys like Z make me break out in hives, especially when they’re adrenaline junkies. But still, I’m not taking any chances.
Not after what happened in New Orleans.
Just the thought of Louisiana, of Remi, has my stomach churning and my chest aching. I’ve been doing so well, too.
Minding my own business.
Getting my life back in order.
Looking into classes at the community college so I won’t be stuck in this dead-end job—this dead-end life—forever.
At least until Mr. My-Balls-Are-Even-Bigger-than-My-Bank-Account here comes along and decides to mess with me just because he can. Fury burns through my veins at the thought, and I glare at Z. Suddenly I’m itching to dump another cup of coffee on him. One that isn’t iced this time. But I need this job, and already people are pointing and staring. If my aunt or uncle passes by and sees all the commotion, I’ll be out of another job. And seeing as I’ve already gotten banished from the gift shop and one of the restaurants in the twelve days I’ve been here, I’m kind of running out of options.
Annoyed but resigned to doing some kind of damage control, I pull out a clean rag from under the counter and thrust it toward him. “Here. You can use this to clean up.”
“I’ve got it, thanks.” His grin widens, and it only ticks me off to see that my ire amuses him. At least until he reaches for the back neckline of his shirt and pulls it over his head in one smooth movement. By the time he starts dabbing at his black pants with it, my anger is a thing of the past. And so are my brain cells.
I can’t help it. I try to stay pissed, but it’s hard to actually formulate thoughts—any thoughts—when I’m confronted with a half-naked Z.
I mean, the guy’s an alien. He has to be, because human beings just don’t look like this. At least not outside of magazine shoots and Hollywood movies. And maybe not even there.
Despite the winter weather, his skin is a soft, golden bronze that’s a testament to just how much time he spends outside with his shirt off—despite the snow. His arms are big, his shoulders well developed. And his abs. Omigod, his abs are a work of art. Forget six-pack. This guy has an eight-working-on-ten-pack, and for a second—just a second—my eyes nearly cross as I imagine what it would be like to lick a path straight from his collarbone to his navel.
He shifts a little under my scrutiny and for the first time I notice the scars he’s got—on his arm, his chest, over his ribs, down the side of his abs. Way too many scars for a normal guy to have. But he isn’t a normal guy, I remind myself. He’s a snowboarder, one known for taking crazy risks and doing really wild stunts. Is it any wonder his body is so torn up?
Not that the scars make him look bad. Just the opposite. Somehow they only reinforce the beauty of all that hard-packed muscle and golden skin. The same way his ink does. I try to look away, but I can’t. I’m fascinated by the tattoo that covers the entire right half of his upper body. It’s a wall of tribal-looking flames in shades of black and gray that start somewhere below his waist and lick all the way up to his shoulder, over his pec, and down his right arm. It’s beautiful, really well designed, and sexy as hell. On his left side is another tattoo, this one a bunch of words in a fancy black script that I’m too far away to read. But I want to. Suddenly I’m dying to know what words are so important that a guy like Z would brand himself with them.
Something tickles the side of my chin and I have an abrupt, mortifying fear that it’s my own saliva. That I am literally standing here drooling at the work of art that is Z Michaels. I dash my hand over my chin just in case. Turns out I haven’t lost complete control of my salivary glands—it’s just a lock of hair that escaped from my bun.
The realization snaps my brain back into action. A few seconds too late, but I’m a big believer in better late than never. Or at least I am now.
“You know, we have a rule here at the Lost Canyon coffee bar,” I tell him with a little flick of my fingers. “No shirts, no shoes, no service. You should probably go take care of that somewhere else.”
The dark eyes he turns on me are filled with disbelief and maybe, just maybe, a hint of respect. I’ve spent days watching how the female population around here responds to this guy, and I’m pretty sure that I’m the first one to call him on his shit since he hit puberty. Possibly even before.
Just look at the girl he came in with. He was all over her when they first walked into the lodge, just like he’s been every time I’ve caught a glimpse of him the last few days. Not that I was looking for him or anything. But still. Then, within five minutes of being here, he’s hanging out with another girl—the trashy-looking one who threw herself in his path like a pilot on a kamikaze mission.
Though, to be honest, it’s hard to blame him for the second girl. Whoever she was, the look she’d given him had told Z loud and clear that she didn’t mind if he climbed on right there in the middle of the coffee bar. My only surprise was that he hadn’t taken little Miss Can’t-Open-My-Legs-Fast-Enough up on the offer.
Not that it’s any of my business—at least not until he came up to the counter and started in on me. I don’t care if every other girl in town is okay with whatever tiny piece of Z she can sink her claws into. I don’t play that way, even if I am interested in a guy. Which, in this case, I definitely am not. After what happened with Remi, there’s no way I’d touch this guy with a fifty-foot pole.
“Wait a minute,” he asks when he finally gets his slack jaw working again. “You’re refusing to serve me, even though it’s completely your fault that I’m shirtless?”
“First of all, I offered you a towel. You’re the one who decided to take your shirt off. Second, I’m being generous and not charging you for the spilled drink. And third, I don’t make the rules. I just follow them.” Again, I flick my fingers at him like he’s a particularly annoying gnat. “So move along before someone from management sees you and has you removed from the building.”
He snorts, like even the chance of that is too far-fetched to contemplate. Which it probably is. My aunt and uncle love the fact that he comes here to practice with his friends. At dinner the other night they were talking about how to convince him to sign on with them like his friends had. So far they’ve offered him everything but part ownership in the lodge, and he’s turned it all down.
Must be nice to have so much money from endorsements and sponsorships and family that you can just walk away from a shitload of it for no reason at all.
“Management is going to remove me from the building?” he asks incredulously. “You’re the one who just dumped a drink down my pants.”
I feel the need to clarify. “On your pants, not down them.”
“I didn’t realize there was that big a difference.”
“Yeah, I bet you tell that to all the girls.”
“Only the cute ones,” he says with a smirk that somehow makes him look even sexier, a fact that annoys the crap out of me. “And for the record, the next time you want me naked, all you have to do is ask. No coffee spillage necessary.”
My blood starts to boil. Does his arrogance know no bounds? Who cares if he’s the hottest guy I’ve ever seen if every time he opens his mouth he sounds like a total douche?
“Dude, if I wanted you naked, I wouldn’t get you that way by dumping something cold on your crotch.” Determined to put him in his place, I shoot a glance at the area in question, making sure the look on my face is less than impressed. “It kind of defeats the purpose.”
“It’ll take more than a cold drink to defeat that purpose. But if you don’t believe me—” He lifts a brow in obvious challenge while his hands drop to the waistband of his pants.
He starts to unfasten them, but I know he’s bluffing, that he’s just trying to get a reaction out of me. So I stand there, eyes narrowed and arms crossed over my chest while I wait for him to back down. Because there’s no way he’ll actually strip in the middle of this coffee bar. Not now, not in front of all these people.
“Hey, stop that!” I all but leap across the counter at him, and this time I’m the one grabbing his waistband. Except I’m tugging his pants back up as I try my best to ignore where my hands are.
The smirk has evolved into a full-blown, cocky grin. “So, what do you say we take this somewhere more private?” he teases. He rests his hands lightly over mine, and even though he’s a conceited ass, I still have to resist the urge to fan myself. Z with the wattage turned up is a force to be reckoned with.
Not that I’m going to let him see that.
“Like a holding cell? Public nudity is against the rules and the law.”