At her mischievous smile, Nicholas made a snap evaluation. Not particularly rational to do so, yet under the current circumstances, he’d learned a good deal in a short span of time about the needy, insecure girl.
She paced in front of the elevator door.
“Are you—?” Her scent tickled his nose again. “Are you claustro…claustrophobic?” He sneezed the last word.
“Are you allergic to elevators?”
“I think I’m allergic to you.” Allergic reactions were caused by the body trying to defend itself against a suspected harmful entity. Ridiculous. She was just a girl—of no harm to him. What had led him to those thoughts. Oh yes. “What have you got on? The scent?”
“A special holiday blend. Cinnamon and pine needles.”
No wonder. Who’d decided these things equated to the smell of Christmas? They might have asked him what the real scent of Christmas was before deciding. He removed the jacket of his red suit and loosened his tie. Neatly folding the jacket, he draped it over a section of the metal railing.
“That’s quite a suit.”
She snickered. “I’ll give it to you—takes confidence to wear something like that. Even this time of year.”
“You don’t like it?”
She ran a quick glance over him, hat to shoes. When she came back for a second look, she paused on his face. “Actually, I do. I mean the cut is good. You’re well-built so that helps to carry it off. Not sure about the Santa hat. But I guess it’s the season.”
“So, if I wore this some other time of year, you might reconsider your opinion?” He didn’t need her opinion, but something about her approval affected him like sweet caramel apples. Mmm…caramel apples. They were sure to serve those again this year at the Snow Ball.
“Do you dress like this all the time?” A sharp squeal, this time overhead, wiped the tease from her face.
Jarred back to reality, his need to escape before they found him returned. Miracle. Concentrate on a miracle.
“So.” The girl broke into his worry. “I wonder why the elevator broke.”
“I’ve been in and out of this building for years, and it’s never happened before.”
“There’s always a reason for things happening.” She gave him a half smile. “Nothing just happens.”
She was right. Quite intuitive. People who believed in chance were kidding themselves.
With narrowed eyes, she tipped her chin downward. “Maybe it’s sabotage.”
Her tone joked, but she might’ve actually hit on something. “Maybe it’s…” Couldn’t be a coincidence. “A patient. A patient who doesn’t like the way his sessions are going. And he’s a retired electrician.” The man insisted on calling him Harry when they met in group. They didn’t get along.
“Are you a shrink or something? From the clinic in the suite of offices on the twenty-fourth floor?”
He studied her studying him. “What if I am? And please don’t say shrink.” He couldn’t tolerate disrespect, not even from a girl who harbored fear. He had to stay focused on getting out of here. Yet…why was this girl thrown into his path? She had yet to ask for anything, but she must need something.
“I’ve never met a shrink.”
Clearly, she meant to push his buttons. He rolled up the sleeves of his white dress shirt and ignored her insolence. “I’ll be missed at the Snow Ball and dinner.”
“Dinner I can miss. These thighs aren’t getting any thinner.” She patted the sides of her legs. “And all the damn fudge and cookies this time of year.”
He gazed on her orange outline remembering the words to some song he’d heard somewhere—half woman, half child, she…la, la something…wild. Didn’t sound like elevator music.
“You aren’t overweight.”
“You aren’t overweight.”
“Your opinion.” She sucked in her tummy.
“That’s not a healthy attitude.” He played with his too-short beard.
“You are a shrink, aren’t you?”
“What if I am?”
“Spare me.” She waved him off like a gnat.
He narrowed his eyes. His shoulders tensed. “What does that mean?”
“You’re uptight, kind of paranoid, for a head doctor.”
“My days are filled with paranoia.” And she’d done it again. Distracting him when she needed…something. What did she want from him? Everyone wanted something.
She hiked up her dress and sat on the carpeted floor.
He looked down and decided she was out of place in this building. Had she been visiting a parent who worked for the Foundation? “What are you doing here?”
“I…I sort of work here at the Le Mare Foundation.” Patting the carpet beside her, she motioned for him to sit. “My name is Marie Louise…Smith.”
“Work at Le Mare? You can’t be more than sixteen.” He sat across from her, stared at her freckles, and thought how all young people wanted to be older. Foolishness.
“Sorry.” He always had trouble once they were past nine.
“Anyway, I work at Le Mare as part of a…an extracurricular program for my…studies…at the U. They don’t pay much, but the perks are great. Maybe I should ask for a raise, you think?”
“Depends. Are you in the psychiatric division?” He glanced at the watch on her wrist. His whole master plan, his entrance into the ball, was going to be ruined.
“No. Probably why we haven’t met before.”
He didn’t answer, but rose and paced back and forth a few steps.
“So enough about me. What’s your name?”
“Claus. Is that German?”
“Claus is my last name.” He scanned the ceiling. Maybe the trap door was disguised. “My first name is Nicholas.”
“Well, Nick, I suppose you want me to call you Dr. Claus, but I’m not going to do it. You’re stuffy enough without my adding to it. You’re just plain ol’ Nick to me. Ol’ Nick-stuck-in-the-elevator with me.”
She could call him whatever she liked. Eventually she’d get around to what she wanted, then she’d use his name properly.
“Oh, my God!” Marie jumped up. “Fall Out Boy.” She waved overhead at the speakers. “Fall Out Boy as elevator music. Fall Out Boy singing Christmas music! Is nothing sacred? Now I am manic.” Her eyes blinked madly.
He wanted to keep his mind on the miracle he needed, but her apparent agitation, and the fact he didn’t know Fall Out Boy, distracted him.
“I ask you, Nick. Where is the line drawn? When will the selling out stop? I can’t take this!” She raised her hands above her head and plunged them into her hair. Streams of shiny strands covered her fingers like black satin ribbon entwining each digit.
As he took hold of her wrists, he spoke in his calmest singsong voice. “It’s all right, Marie Louise. The song will end, and you won’t have to listen. Talk to me, and you won’t hear the music.”
She glanced wildly side-to-side, then moved her head in tiny jerks like an old silent movie; she brought her face to meet his gaze. A soft giggle escaped her mouth. “Or we could just dance. You do dance, don’t you, Nick?”
Knowing she’d duped him, he let go. “You’re obnoxious. You know that?”
“And you’re a tight-ass. Are we even?”
He thought on that for a minute. “I am not a tight-ass.”
“You are. I’m very intuitive about people.” She waved her delicate hand. “And realistic. I see others as clearly as I see myself.”
He met her defiant gaze. She had lovely eyes. “How do you see yourself?”
“Don’t start that psychology stuff on me.” She sat on the floor again, half-smile and half-smirk on her face.
This time he sat next to her. “No psychology, just interest.” And he meant it. You had to be interested to actually give people what they needed.
She tilted her head with a sideways glance. “Number one. It’s a problem looking sixteen and being twenty-one. It greatly affects my self-image.”
“Someday, for the better.”
“Okay, how old do you think I look?” He smiled inside. Now this was fun.
“Well, you look in pretty good shape.” She elbowed him and winked.
For some reason, he puffed his chest. He walked every day and used the gym, as meager as it was. Staying fit for that one big night a year was important.
Her gaze roamed his face. “The blond beard hides a lot, but I’d say forty.”
“Wrong. And you’ve affected me more than I did you.” But not adversely. It was great fun fooling people. “I’m actually much older.”
She rolled her eyes. “Point taken.”
He grinned, pleased by her smiling, relaxed attitude. “And I’m a lot of fun. At least, I provide a great deal of fun for others, so that must mean I’m fun.”
Her eyes crinkled at the corners, and her tummy jiggled with a giggle like a bowl full of—
The elevator went dark. “Oh, damn!” They spoke in unison and laughed.
Please return tomorrow for the conclusion of On the Way to the Snow Ball.