I stepped inside one of Los Angeles’s high-rise buildings for the chance to turn my life around.
It was a sweltering day in September, the kind that had my clothes clinging in places they weren’t designed to cling, and I should’ve been thinking about the job. About what I would be doing. The honor of protecting someone from harm.
But facing my fears didn’t come naturally to me, so I was thinking about my hair instead.
I crossed the lobby and entered a waiting elevator. I wasn’t equipped like someone in the protection business. No gun. No Taser. No combat or defense training. I didn’t even have any muscles worth acknowledging.
I did have a hard knot of nerves in my stomach though. Would a bad guy be intimidated if I threatened to release the butterflies?
The elevator shared none of my misgivings and shot skyward.
I patted my unruly, shoulder-length hair—a nervous habit I’d developed over twenty-nine years of experiencing it having a mind of its own. Some strands were stuck to my neck, subdued by sweat, but the rest was likely poking in all directions. I watched the golden numbers light up one by one. In typical Los Angeles fashion, even the damn elevator was more glamorous than me.
The nagging concern I might be underdressed rose with every floor I passed.
I patted my hair some more.
Twenty-three lit up, and the doors slid open with a quiet whoosh, reminding me of one of Aunt Alice’s disapproving sighs. Aunt Alice and her perfect children never had problems getting their hair to behave. They were probably above sweating too.
The corridor ahead of me didn’t look to be any more sympathetic. It was insulated and silent, far removed from the heat and bustle of the street below and untouched by my mounting tension.
Ignoring the way anxiety had me projecting my feelings onto an inanimate building, I squinted at my palm. The number I’d written there when my handler set up the meeting had faded from an embarrassing number of bathroom breaks in the hours since. But I could just make out the smudgy figures: 2317. I walked until I found the matching plaque and made sure my shaking hand gave a firm, audible knock.
I took a moment to steel myself, then shouldered my way through the heavy door.
The room where my fate would be decided could’ve been plucked from a European design magazine. Floor-to-ceiling windows filled the space with natural light, all the better for calling attention to the distinct lack of furniture. Despite the generous square footage, it was furnished with only two expensive-looking chairs and a sleek rosewood desk with nothing on it but the token MacBook Pro.
I fought back a smirk. Where did this guy keep his stuff?
The man in question was seated behind the desk and looked so unenthused to meet me that I wondered if I’d misread the smudged ink after all. He was dauntingly handsome, with none of my insecurity, and dark hair that was cropped far too short to even think of misbehaving.
The no-nonsense style seemed at odds with the swankiness of his office, hinting he might be more practical than the decor suggested.
My gaze dropped to his eyes. They were the stern gray of an overcast wintry morning—the likes of which I hadn’t seen since moving to California—and just as unsympathetic. The clean-shaven square jaw and broad shoulders did not soften his image.
I finished admiring his jawline and noticed his gaze was roaming over me as well.
For a fleeting second, I wished it was his hands doing the roaming. Then I remembered why I was here.
This was the guy I would be endangering myself to protect. If he hired me anyway. If he didn’t, maybe I could talk him into pushing me down the elevator shaft on the way out.
Judging by the cool expression on his beautiful face, he might be amenable to the idea.
My concern had been warranted. I was underdressed. The conservative navy-blue dress and heels I’d chosen to make the most of the slim build and blue eyes I’d inherited from my mother seemed drab compared to his sharp, tailored suit. Sure, I’d inherited the dress and shoes from my mother too, but I had been hoping they were old enough to pass for vintage.
By the time we’d finished our mutual assessment, his mouth had formed a hard line.
I forced myself to meet his eyes.
“Isobel Avery, I take it?” he asked.
He didn’t react to my Australian accent. Some Americans found it charming. My potential client wasn’t one of them.
Actually, he didn’t look as if charming was even in his dictionary.
Nor did he look like he needed me to defend him. A notion intensified by the fact that my knees were wobbling, and I was betting his weren’t.
He didn’t invite me to sit, and I wondered if that was so he could gauge my competence level by my traitorous knees. I sat down anyway, lifted my chin, and put on my best impression of professional indifference.
“What experience do you have?” he asked.
I resisted the urge to lick my lips before answering, leaving me acutely aware of how dry they were.
That seemed unfair when the rest of me was still damp with sweat.
“I’ve been selected for you by the Taste Society,” I said. “That’s as much as you need to know.”
In other words, none, zilch, nada. I’d just finished eight months of intensive training, and aside from that, I was as green as a queasy leprechaun.
This job would either be my saving grace or the final rut in a long road of potholes.
One step at a time, I told myself. First get the job, then concentrate on whether you can pull it off.
I stared at him, willing him to say yes.
“I’m not in the habit of trusting others’ judgment,” he said instead. “Why should I start now?”
Good question. Especially since the Taste Society had sent him a rookie. But I couldn’t tell him that, so I took a stab in the dark.
“Because it’s efficient, and you’re short on time.”
This guy would prefer to pull out his fingernails than ask a girl for protection. Which meant he’d postpone asking until there was no other choice. Until he couldn’t afford to delay any longer. Or so I hoped.
Waiting to learn whether my guess would pay off was almost as painful as the job training.
He relented at last. “You’ll have to do, I suppose.”
I let out the breath I was holding. It wasn’t the most affirming offer I’d ever received, but desperation is a wonderful substitute for rose-tinted glasses.
It turned out desperation was a wonderful substitute for self-respect and self-preservation too.
He stood up and withdrew two envelopes from his inner breast pocket. I took them from him and caught a whiff of cold, biting citrus and sun-warmed leather. It figured he smelled good. The envelopes were toasty from being against his chest, and for a brief second, I imagined slipping my hand under his jacket to the place they’d vacated.
I needed to get out more. But entertainment hadn’t been high on my priority list of late.
“The first envelope is from the Taste Society,” he said. “They asked me to give it to you if I approved you for the job. You’ll start at breakfast tomorrow. Before that, have my stylist give you a makeover.” He scanned me again. “A big one.”
He didn’t pause to let the insult sink in. “The stylist’s number and my schedule are in the other envelope.”
“Anything else?” I asked, not keen on hearing his answer.
“Get a tan.”
“Sorry, I don’t tan.” Also compliments of my redheaded mother.
“You do if I say so, sweetheart. You’re in LA now, and I’ve got a reputation to maintain.”
Ugh. Sweetheart. “No, I mean my skin goes bright red, then white again. So your options are beetroot or potato.”
“Then get a spray tan.”
“I’m allergic,” I lied. He’d already given me the envelopes, and I figured it’d do him good to broaden his horizons. I smiled sweetly. “So if it’s all right with you, I’m gonna go ahead and live to a ripe old age as a potato.”
I couldn’t tell if the barely perceptible shift of his eyebrows was from anger or amusement.
“You chose an interesting profession for that.”
I brushed aside his comment and headed for the exit. He was probably just being funny, right? Sure, that was the interpretation I’d go with. Never mind that nothing in the past few minutes had pointed to him having a sense of humor. All the same, recruitment had told me the job wouldn’t affect my chances of longevity too much, and despite rumors to the contrary, I was taking their word for it.
I was broke, not suicidal.
In a last-ditch effort to resuscitate my dreams of leaving a positive impression, I paused at the door and gave my new client a wave. “See you tomorrow.”
He didn’t reply, but when I glanced back, I saw his contempt for my appearance hadn’t stopped his eyes from following my ass on the way out.