The trouble with mistlet.., p.34
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       The Trouble with Mistletoe, p.34

         Part #2 of Heartbreaker Bay series by Jill Shalvis

  The corner of Archer’s mouth quirked, like maybe he could read her mind. But he didn’t say a word, instead seeming perfectly content to stand there all badass and wait her out. And she knew from experience that he could wait her out until the end of time.

  The bastard.

  “Long morning already?” she asked, caving and speaking first.

  “Long night.”

  He was big and bad and tough, and he irritated her by just breathing. But when push came to shove, she cared about him and the guys who worked for him. Most of the jobs he took on were routine—civil, corporate, and insurance investigations, surveillance, fraud, corporate background checks—but some weren’t routine at all. Forensic investigations, the occasional big-bond bounty hunting, government contract work . . . all with the potential to be life threatening.

  The security contract he held on this building was surely tame and mild in comparison and also a favor to his best friend, Spence—and no, it didn’t escape her that they shared a best friend. She mostly ignored it. “We have a problem,” she said.

  He arched a brow, the equivalent of a long-winded query from anyone else.

  She rolled her eyes and found herself in a defensive pose, hands on hips. “The emergency exit signs—”

  “Already taken care of,” he said.

  “Okay, but Mr. Nottingham—”

  “Also taken care of.”

  She took a deep, purposefully calming breath. It was hard to look right at him because he was very tall. At five foot seven, she was nowhere close to petite but even she barely came up to his shoulders. She hated that he had such a height advantage during their arguments. And this was going to be an argument.

  “So what happened?” she asked. “Why did the lights go out like that, all at once?”


  “Excuse me?”

  He didn’t repeat himself and tired of the macho show, she poked him in the chest with her finger. His pec didn’t give at all. Stupid muscles. “Listen,” she said. “I’ve got pissed-off tenants, a man in the hospital, and a signed contract from you guaranteeing the safety of the people in this building. So I’m going to need you to do more than stand there all tall, dark, and silently brooding on this one, Archer, and tell me what the hell is going on, preferably using more than one word at a time.”

  His piercing eyes flashed a disturbingly intense combination of green and light brown, reflecting the fact that he’d seen the worst of the worst and was capable of fighting it with his bare hands. She got that the edge of danger and testosterone coming off him in waves attracted women in droves, but she wasn’t one of them.

  Or she tried very hard not to be.

  She didn’t do dangerous men. Nope, only the safe, respectable guy need apply. Not that anyone had applied in a very long time . . .

  “You want to be careful how you speak to me, Elle.”

  The man was impenetrable. A virtual island. And he didn’t like being questioned, she knew that much. But she also knew the only way to deal with him was to hold her own so she just looked at him.

  He looked very slightly amused. “Last fall I told you that you had a squirrel colony going on in the roof,” he said. “I told you that you needed to hire someone to block off the holes left behind by woodpeckers from the year before or you were going to have problems. You assured me you’d handled it.”

  “Yes,” she said. “Because the landscapers assured me they did.”

  “Either they blew you off or they didn’t do it correctly. An entire colony of squirrels moved into the walls and had a party. Last night they hit the electrical room, where they ate through some wires.”

  Well, hell. No wonder he was giving her bad ’tude. He was right. This wasn’t on him at all.

  It was on her. “What happened to the squirrels?”

  “Probably dead in the walls.”

  “Are you telling me I killed squirrels?”

  This got her a small smile. “What do you think the landscapers would’ve done?”

  “Okay,” she said, letting out a long exhale. “Thanks for the explanation.” She turned to go.

  A hand caught her, fingers wrapping around her elbow and pulling her back around.

  “What?” she asked.

  This got her another brow arch. When he used his words, his voice was deep, scratchy, and rolled over her like a wave. “Waiting for my apology.”

  “Sure,” she said agreeably. “When hell freezes over.” She lifted her chin, grateful for her four-inch heels so she could almost, kind of, not quite look him in the eyes. “I’m in charge of this building, Archer, which means I’m in charge of everything that happens in it. I’m also in charge of everyone who works for this building.”

  He cocked his head, looking amused. “You want to be the boss of me, Elle?” he asked softly.

  “I am the boss of you.”

  He smiled and her breath caught. Damn, stupid, sexy smile of his anyway, and he knew it too. And then there was The Body. Yes, she thought of it in capital letters; it deserved the respect. “If you don’t want to be walking funny tomorrow,” she said, “you’ll let me go.”

  Complete bravado and they both knew it. She’d only been at this job for a year and it’d come as a surprise to her that he’d been in the building at all. An unfortunate coincidence. Before that it’d been years since they’d had any contact, but she still knew enough to get that no one got the better of him.

  He did as she asked and let go of her, but not before pausing for a long beat first—just making sure they both knew who was in control here, and it wasn’t her.

  No one did intimidation like Archer, and in his line of work he could be in a coma and still intimidate everyone in the room.

  He had muscles on top of muscles but didn’t look beefed up like a body builder. Instead his body seemed lean and seriously badass, with caramel skin that strayed from light to golden to mocha latte depending on what the season was, giving him a look of indeterminable origin.

  And sexiness.

  It worked for him, allowing him to fit into just about any situation. Handy on the job, she knew. But it annoyed her now. She moved clear, not liking the way her entire body went on a high-level alert in his presence, every inch of her seeming to hum beneath the surface.

  It was always a hell of a lot safer to ignore him—and dislike him—from a good distance away.

  He waited until she got to the door before he spoke. “I’ve got a job I need your help on.”

  “No,” she said.

  He just looked at her.

  Her work was demanding and took up a solid eight hours a day. At night she studied, fighting for her ever-elusive accounting degree. Someday she was going to run her own accounting firm and be badass too, just in a different way than Archer. She was going to be a stable, respectable badass—in great shoes. But in the meantime, she worked herself half into the grave just to keep her head above water.

  Problem was, school was expensive, very expensive. As was living in San Francisco. And great shoes. To fund herself, she took the occasional job with Archer when he needed a woman on his investigations. A distraction usually, but sometimes he prevailed on her other skills, skills she’d honed years and years ago when she’d been a street rat.

  “It’s a challenging job,” he said, knowing exactly how to pique her interest. “Need an ID on a guy, and if it’s our man, we need a distraction while we . . . borrow his laptop, the one he never lets out of his sight.”

  “I don’t suppose he’s the type that you could just walk up to and ask his name,” she said.

  His mouth quirked in a small smile. “Let’s just say I’m not someone who would interest him.”

  “Who would?”

  His gaze slid over her. Slowly. “A hot blonde with legs for days in a short, tight dress,” he said.

  Heat pooled in her belly and spread outward. Dammit.

  “One with the stickiest pickpocket fingers I’ve ever met.”

a low laugh, she made it to the outer reception area and had just reached for the door when it opened, so that she collided with someone.

  The man caught her, keeping her upright. “I’m so sorry,” he immediately said. “Are you okay?”

  “I’m fine,” she said and looked him over.

  In his early thirties, he was about her height, medium build, and in a very nice suit. He also had a nice smile, a kind smile, and more than a little male interest in his expression. “Mike Cunningham,” he said, offering her a hand. “I’m a client of Archer’s.”

  She hesitated for a beat and then let him take her hand. “Elle Wheaton.” Then she stepped back from him. “Not a client,” she said.

  “Ah.” He smiled again. “A mysterious woman.”

  “No,” she said. “Just a busy one.” She shot one last look at Archer. A mistake because his gaze was inscrutable and on her as always, and she felt her stupid heart do a stupid somersault in her chest.

  He came into the front room, moving with his usual liquid grace in spite of being armed for a third-world skirmish. He was quick, light on his feet, and physically strong. But that wasn’t what made him so dangerous to her. It was his intelligence. The guy’s mind was razor sharp, sometimes dark, and always curious. “Mike,” he said, holding the interior door open. “Let’s go to my office.” He glanced at Elle. “Tonight,” he said, clearly certain she’d take the job.

  Since she’d never yet figured out how to say no to the hot bastard, she nodded. And for a single beat, the mask fell from his eyes and his golden green gaze warmed as he nodded back.

  And then the door shut between them.

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