Accidentally On Purpose
It was a good thing Elle Wheaton loved being in charge and ordering people around, because if it wasn’t for the thrill of having both those things in her job description, she absolutely didn’t get paid enough to handle all the idiots in her world. “Last night was a disaster,” she said.
Her boss, not looking nearly as concerned as she, shrugged. He was many things and one of them was the owner of the Pacific Pier Building in which they stood, located in the Cow Hollow district of San Francisco. A detail he preferred to keep to himself.
In fact, only one person besides herself knew his identity, but as the building’s general manager, Elle alone handled everything and was always his go-between. The calm, kickass go-between, if she said so herself, although what had happened last night had momentarily shaken some of her calm.
“I have faith in you,” he said.
She slid him a look. “In other words, ‘Fix it, Elle, because I don’t want to be bothered about it.’”
“Well, and that,” he said with a smile as he pushed his glasses further up on his nose.
She refused to be charmed. Yes, he was sexy in that utterly oblivious way of smart geeks and, yes, they were best friends and she loved him, but in her world, love had limits. “Maybe I should recap the disaster for you,” she said. “First, the little lights in every emergency exit sign in the entire building died at midnight. So when Mrs. Winslowe in 3D went to take her geriatric dog to do his business, she couldn’t see the stairwell. Cut to Mr. Nottingham from 4A—whom, it should be noted, was sneaking out of his mistress’s apartment in 3F—slipping and falling in dog poo.”
“You can’t make this stuff up,” he said, still smiling.
Elle crossed her arms. “Mr. Nottingham broke his ankle and very nearly his ass, requiring an ambulance ride and a possible lawsuit. And you’re amused.”
“Come on, Elle. You and I both know life sucks golf balls if you let it. Gotta find the fun somewhere. We’ll pay the hospital bill and buy Mr. Nottingham new pants. I’ll throw in a weekend getaway and he can take his girlfriend or his wife—or both if he wants. We’ll make it right.” Spence smiled at her snort. “Get yourself some caffeine. You look like you’re down a pint.”
“My life isn’t normal,” she said with a shake of her head.
“Forget normal. Normal’s overrated. Now drink that gross green stuff you can’t survive without.”
“It’s just tea, you weirdo. And I could totally survive without it if I needed to.” She paused. “I just can’t guarantee anyone else’s safety.”
“Exactly, so why take chances?”
Elle rolled her eyes. She was still taking what had happened last night personally. She knew everyone in this building, each and every business on the first and second floor and every tenant on the third and fourth floor, and she felt responsible for all of them.
And someone had been hurt on her watch. Unacceptable. “You do realize that the emergency exit system falls under security’s jurisdiction,” she said. “Which means the security company you hired failed us.”
Spence, following her line of thought, stopped looking so amused. He put down his coffee. “No, Elle.”
“Spence, a year ago now you sought me out for the general manager job. You put me in charge of covering your ass, which we both know I’m very good at. So I’m going to go discuss this matter with Archer, your head of security.”
He grimaced. “At least let me clear the building before you two go at each other.”
“There won’t be a fight.” At least not that she’d tell him about. “I’m simply doing my job and that includes managing one Archer Hunt.”
“Yes, technically,” Spence allowed. “But we both know that he answers to no one but himself and he certainly doesn’t consider you his boss. He doesn’t consider anyone his boss.”
Elle smiled and mainlined some more tea, the nectar of the gods as far as she was concerned. “His problem, not mine.”
Looking pained, Spence stood. “He’s not going to enjoy you going off on him this early half-cocked, Elle.”
“Ask me if I care.”
“I care,” Spence said. “It’s too early to help you bury his body.”
Elle let out a short laugh. Her and Archer’s antagonistic attitude toward each other had been well documented. The thing was, Archer thought he ran the world, including her.
But no one ran her world except her. “If everyone would just do what they were supposed to and stay out of my way . . .” she said, trailing off because Spence was no longer listening to her. Instead he was staring out the window, his leanly muscled body suddenly tense, prompting her to his side to see what had caught his interest.
A woman was coming out of the coffee shop and Spence was staring at her. It was his ex, who had once upon a time done her best to rip out his heart.
“Want me to have her kicked off the premises?” Elle asked. “Or I could have her investigated and found guilty of a crime.” She was just kidding. Mostly.
“I don’t need you to handle my damn dates.”
Given that he was a walking Fortune 500 company and also that he’d been badly burned, he actually did need his women investigated, but Elle didn’t argue with him. Arguing with Spence was like arguing with a brick wall. But he hadn’t dated since his ex and it had been months and months, and her heart squeezed because he was gun-shy now. “Hey, in case you haven’t heard, hot genius mechanical engineers slash geeks are in. You’ll find someone better.” Much better, if she had her say . . .
He still didn’t respond and Elle rolled her eyes. “How come men are idiots?”
“Because women don’t come with instruction manuals.” He pushed away from the window. “I’ve gotta go. No killing anyone today, Elle.”
He took the time to give her a long look.
She sighed. “Fine. I won’t kill Archer.”
When she was alone, she finished her tea, applied some lip gloss—for herself, mind you, not for Archer—and left her office, taking her time walking the open hallway. She loved this building and never got tired of admiring the unique architecture of the old place; the corbeled brick and exposed iron trusses, the long picture windows in each unit, the cobblestone courtyard below with the huge fountain where idiots came from all over San Francisco and beyond to toss their money and wish for love.
She was on the second floor in the far north corner, from which if she pressed her nose up against her office window and if there wasn’t any fog, she could see down the hill to the Marina Green and the bay with a very tiny slice of the Golden Gate Bridge as well.
She tried to play it cool, but even after a whole year it was a thrill to live in the heart of the city. Although she hadn’t grown up far from here, it’d been a world away and at least ten rungs down on the social ladder.
It was still early enough that the place was quiet. As she passed the elevator, the doors opened and the woman in charge of housekeeping services came through pushing a large cart.
“Hey, honey,” Trudy said in her been-smoking-for-three-decades voice. “Need anything?”
“Nope, I’m good.” Good plus mad, but although she adored Trudy, the woman couldn’t keep a secret to save her life. “Just taking in the nice morning.”
“Oh, that’s a disappointment,” Trudy said. “I thought maybe you were looking for that hottie with the nice package, the one who runs the investigation firm down the hall.”
Elle nearly choked on her tea. “Nice package?”
“Well I’m old, not dead.” And with a wink, Trudy pushed her cart down the hall.
It was true that Archer was annoyingly hot, not that she cared. Hot was useless to her. She’d much rather have the things that had eluded her for most of her life—safety, security . . . stability.
Three things Archer had never been accused of.
At the other end of the hall, she stopped in front of the door with a discreet sign: Hunt Investigations.
The investigative and elite security firm was carried on Archer’s reputation alone, no ads or marketing required. Basically Archer and the men he employed were finders and fixers, independent contractors for hire, and not necessarily tied by the same red tape as the law.
Which worked for Archer. Rules had never been his thing.
She opened the door and let herself into the reception area, which was much bigger than hers. Clean, masculine lines. Large furniture. Wide open space. A glass partition separated the front from the inner offices.
The check-in counter was empty. The receptionist wasn’t in yet—it was too early for Mollie. But not for the other employees. Past the glass Elle could see part of the inner office. A group of men, five of them, entered by a private door. They’d clearly just come back from some sort of job that had required them to be locked and loaded since they currently looked like a SWAT team.
Elle literally stopped short. And if she was being honest, her heart stopped too because sweet baby Jesus. The lot of them stood there stripping off weapons and shirts so that all she could see was a mass of mind-blowing bodies, sweaty and tatted and in all varieties of skin colors.
It was a cornucopia of smutty goodness and she couldn’t tear her eyes away. In fact, she couldn’t speak either, mostly because her tongue had hit the floor. Her feet took advantage of her frozen brain, taking her to the interior door, where she wanted to press her face up against the glass.
Luckily, someone buzzed her in before she could. They all knew her. After all, her job required her to work closely with the security firm, and therein lay her deepest, darkest problem.
Working closely with Archer Hunt was dangerous in oh so many, many ways, not the least of which was their history, something she did her best to never think about.
She was greeted with variations on “Hey, Elle” and “Mornin’” and then they all went their separate ways, leaving her alone with their fearless leader.
It’d been a long time since they’d let themselves be alone. In fact, she always actively sought out ways to not be alone with him, and given how successful she’d been, she could only figure he’d been doing the same.
Not looking particularly bothered by this unexpected development, Archer met her gaze straight on. He hadn’t unloaded his weapons or his shirt and stood there in full utility combat gear, complete with a Glock on one hip, a stun gun on the other, and a pistol strapped to a thigh. His Army hat was backward on his head. The handle of a butterfly knife stuck out of a pocket in his cargoes and he had two sets of cuffs strapped to his belt. An urban warrior, wired for sound with a two-way and a Kevlar vest strapped across his chest and back, telling Elle that wherever they’d been, he hadn’t just come back from Disneyland.
She managed to be both horrified and turned on at the same time. But if life had taught her one thing the hard way, it was how to hide her thoughts and emotions, so she carefully rolled up her tongue.
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 if need be.
So of course, she caved and spoke first. “Long morning already?”
“Long night,” he said.
He was big and tough, and frustrating beyond measure for so many reasons, not the least of which was her very secret crush on him, uncomfortably balanced on the fact that she owed him her life.
Unconcerned with any of that, he began to unload his weapons. Most of the jobs he took on were routine: criminal, corporate, and insurance investigations along with elite security contracts, surveillance, fraud, and corporate background checks. But some weren’t routine at all, like the forensic investigations, the occasional big bond bounty hunting, government contract work . . . all with the potential to be dangerous if not life threatening.
In contrast, the security contract he held on this building surely seemed tame and mild in comparison, but she knew it was a favor to Spence.
“We have a problem,” she said.
He arched a brow, the equivalent 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?”
At her tone, 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 the opposite sex like bees to honey but at the moment she’d like to stomp on his size thirteen Bates. Especially since 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.”
“You want to be careful how you speak to me, Elle,” he said.
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. He didn’t respect cowards. “Fine,” she said. “Will you pretty please tell me what the hell is going on?”
At that he looked very slightly amused, probably because she was the only one who ever dared to push him. “Last fall I told you that you had a squirrel colony going on in the roof,” he said. “I said 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.”
“Because the landscapers assured me they’d take care of it.”
He shrugged a broad shoulder. “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?” she asked.
“Probably dead in the walls.”
She blinked. “Are you telling me I killed a bunch of squirrels?”
His mouth quirked. “What do you think the landscapers would’ve done? Sent them on a vacay to the Bahamas?”
“Okay,” she said, letting out a long exhale. “Thanks for the explanation.” She turned to go.
His hand caught her, long fingers wrapping around her elbow and causing all sorts of unwelcome sensations as he pulled her back around.
“What?” she asked.
“Waiting for my apology.”
“Sure,” she said agreeably. “When hell freezes over.” She lifted her chin, grateful for her four-inch heels so that 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 again. “You want to be the boss of me, Elle?” he asked softly.
“I am the boss of you.”
Now he outright smiled and her breath caught. Damn, stupid, sexy smile. 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 stop invading my personal-space bubble.”
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 was quick, light on his feet, and physically strong. But that wasn’t what made him so dangerous to her. No, it was his sharp intelligence, his quick wit, how he was willing to go as dark as he needed to in order to do what he thought was right.
And then there was the biggie—the way he had of making her feel shockingly alive.
He did as she asked and stepped back but not before pausing to make sure they both knew who was in control here, and it most definitely 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 might. 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.
It worked for him, allowing him to fit in to just about any situation. Handy on the job, she imagined. But with her he was careful. Distant. And yet she’d seen the way he sometimes looked at her, and on the rare occasion when he’d touched her, like when he guided her through a door with his hand low on her back, he let himself linger. There was always a shocking and baffling yearning beyond both the glances and the touches.
That, or it was all just wishful thinking.
Not that it mattered since he still held back with her. The problem was she yearned too. Yearned for him to see her as a woman, strong and capable enough to stand at his side.
But after what they’d been through, she knew that would never happen. She turned away, annoyed by how her entire body had gone on high alert as always, every inch of her seeming to hum beneath the surface.
She should have just emailed him.
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.
She took online college classes at the crack of dawn. Her job 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. As were great shoes. Plus good jobs didn’t grow on trees. The one she’d had before this had turned out to be a nightmare. She felt lucky here, and although she was paid very decently, college was breaking her bank. To help fund herself, she took the occasional job with Archer when he needed a woman on a job. A distraction usually, but sometimes he prevailed on her other skills, skills she’d honed a lifetime ago.
“It’s a challenging job,” he said, knowing exactly how to pique her interest, damn him. “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.”
Hmm. Definitely a challenge. “I don’t suppose he’s the type you could just walk up to and ask his name,” she said.
His mouth curved in a small smile. “Let’s just say I’m not someone who would interest him.”
“No? So who would?” she asked.
“A hot blonde with legs for days in a short, tight dress.”
Heat pooled in her belly and spread outward. Dammit.
“One with the stickiest pickpocket fingers I’ve ever met,” he added.
With a low laugh—dammit, was there anything sexier than a man who knew you to the bone?—she made it to the outer reception area. She’d just reached for the front door when it opened and she collided with someone.
The man caught her, keeping her upright. “I’m so sorry. Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” she said. 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 Penham,” he said, offering her a hand. “I’m a client of Archer’s.”
“Elle Wheaton.” She smiled. “Not a client.”
“Ah, a mysterious woman,” he said with a smile.
“No, 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 as he came into the front room, moving with his usual liquid grace in spite of still being armed for a third-world skirmish.
“Mike,” he said in greeting to the man who’d just arrived. “Come on back.” He looked at Elle. “Tonight then?”
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 she shut the door between them.