They say no good story starts with a salad but mine did. So, here goes.
It started with a salad. It wasn’t even a good one like with feta or pear or chicken. No, limp soggy leaves sat sadly in a bowl surrounded by three evil looking prawns, their buggy eyes stared out at me. I hated prawns with the fiery vengeance of a thousand suns. This was one salad I did not want to make friends with.
I hadn’t planned or even wanted to go out. Addie, the executive assistant at the security firm where I worked, had pestered me until I’d acquiesced. Addie had style with a capital cool. A total glam babe – I’d never seen her in anything less than full pin-up vintage. Despite my protests, she’d convinced me to attend Thursday night trivia.
We were at a small bar just down the street from my office. I’d had a burger for lunch and convinced myself I should make an attempt to be healthy and order something light for dinner.
I reached for the menu, looking back over the description. Yep. No mention of prawns. My nose wrinkled in disgust as I stared at my salad, gingerly poking a crustacean with the tines of my fork.
“Just saying, that looks horrible,” Addie commented, taking a giant bite out of her deliciously decadent burger. She moaned, rolling her eyes in exaggerated joy.
I grunted, holding up a limp leaf for closer inspection. “Maybe if I–”
“Swap it.” The deep voice interrupted.
I glanced at my boss, Luc, my cheeks warming as I realised all eyes at our table were now on me.
“Umm.” I abruptly stood, the chair scraping awkwardly as I struggled to ignore the chuckles and gentle teasing from my colleagues. I picked up the plate, muttering, “Be right back.”
I worked for a private security company. Elliot Securities was fast becoming one of the biggest names in the business. They did everything from private security for the rich and famous through to investigations and software checks. If it involved security, Elliot Securities was involved.
A computer geek, my job involved uncovering weaknesses in a company’s cyber security, including information about people who may be doing the wrong thing.
The second-best part of my job, besides doing cool sometimes questionably legal activities, was working with some of the best minds in the industry. The Nucleus, as we referred to ourselves, were a bunch of guys who, like me, were good with computers. We knew how to work technology to our advantage. We even had badges. And a theme song.
Which brought me back to Luc – my direct boss. We’d first been introduced during my interview for the Nucleus. By that stage, I’d been at Elliot Securities for two years but working in tech support. My skills had been woefully underutilised until I’d assisted my boss in building a customised firewall and backup solution. The interview offer had come as a surprise. I’d attended it completely unprepared for the sheer beauty of Luc.
“You can come in now.” The elderly receptionist had ushered me into the meeting room. I’d stepped through, thanking her, and promptly stumbled, fumbling my resume and note pad papers scattered across the floor.
I dropped to the floor, face flaming as I scrambled for my papers. His tall body moved with perfect grace as he stood, rounding the table to help . I could tell he worked out because, while lean, he was solidly built. He stood a few inches taller than my five feet eleven but moved with power and deliberation, all of him in perfect balance.
He’d crouched, reaching out to assist. He’d kept his thick chestnut hair cut but not cropped. He had stubble, the dark scruff framed the edge of his face and mouth, drawing attention to his lips.
His eyes were blue. Not green or grey‑blue but piercing clear blue. Long, impossibly perfect dark lashes framed his amazing eyes. Strong eyebrows and nose, a smile on his lips - no dimples. My flush deepened.
“Hi.” He’d held out a few sheets of paper which I quickly accepted and shoved into my folder, hair falling over my face. Still crouched on the floor, he’d offered a hand. “I’m Lucien Falco. Luc.”
“Evie Franklin.” We shook, remaining crouched.
“Should I leave?” I’d whispered, my eyes finally meeting his.
“Do you want to leave?” He’d whispered back, a small smile tugging his lips.
“No. I want the job.”
“Then” – he’d straightened to stand, reaching his hand down to help me up – “let’s do the interview.”
I’d talked through my experience and been invited back to complete online testing. The tests were straight forward, checking to see if my skills matched my words. At the end of the day, the job was mine.
Elliot Securities used the Nucleus by assigning each member to a case leader. The case leader then utilised your skills for anything they had on the books. Could be a security assessment, physical security advice, inside threat assessment, or information security testing. These days something as basic as physical security still had a technical element – stalkers often started their obsessions online. I’d pinpointed a few threats through a simple internet search.
I’d been assigned to Lucien Falco. I’d now worked for Elliot Securities for three and a bit years, the last eighteen months directly under Lucien. We were a great team, our case-closure rate was excellent, and we got along well.
The only downside? I wasn’t sticking around for much longer. And I had no idea how to tell him.
Heading to the kitchen, I weaved in and out of the crowded line waiting at the bar. As I shifted around a group of girls, hands clutched at my back dragging me down. I lost the grip on the plate, sending it spiralling. My plate shattered as our bodies hit the floor with a loud thud. The bar briefly quietened as heads turned to me and the woman who’d desperately clasped me to her.
“Oh my God! I’m so sorry! These damn heels. There’s a wet patch, I just couldn’t stop–”
I disentangled myself from the woman gushing apologies at me.
“No worries.” I waved off offers of assistance from the crowd, then offered her a smile and a hand, helping her stand.
“What the fuck, Mel!”
My limp salad dripped from the jean leg of the angry voice’s owner. Over six foot, built like a line-backer, his neck and cheeks were a mottled purple-red as he glared at the tiny woman beside me. She cowered, arms curling around her middle as her shoulders hunched, her eyes on his feet. I could smell the alcohol on his breath as he weaved unsteadily.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t–”
The man swept his hand back, moving to strike her. Years of training kicked in. As he swung to backhand her face, I stepped forward, deflecting the blow with my forearm, following it up with a hard jab to his collarbone, knocking him back. I shifted in front of the woman, hands raised. He came back, taking a wild swing, roaring as he tried to punch me.
I ducked his arm, stepping forward to knee him in the balls. Taking his other arm, I used the momentum of his body to twist his arm up and around, pegging it behind him as he crashed to the floor, his free hand moving to cup his balls.
Dimly aware of yelling and screams, I tried to calm my racing heart while the man squirmed under me. I dug a knee in his back, pushing harder on his arm to keep him subdued.
“I got him.” Luc pulled the guy’s free arm back, pinning the arm while taking over from me. “You can let go, Evie.”
I dropped my hands, stepping back, eyes immediately searching for the best exit.
“Okay, guys, that’s enough. Everyone back to your seat.” Security entered the fray, assessing the situation with a glance. His eyes hit me before skittering off to the sobbing woman on my left.
“You need me to call the cops? You wanna make a report?”
I hesitated, glancing at the woman. She nodded, mascara running.
“He’s my boyfriend. Was. Is. I don’t… he hits… I can’t…” She broke down, crying harder.
The gathered crowd slowly dissipated as the bar attempted to start the next round of trivia, distracting them from our small group.
Addie pushed her way through to pull the sobbing woman into a tight hug. “Don’t you worry, honey. You’re safe now.”
An hour later, the grumbling in my stomach had intensified, but the police had taken my statement.
“So.” Addie shook her long wavy auburn hair as one of her perfectly sculpted eyebrows raised in my direction. “Where have you been hiding your kung fu fighting moves, little miss karate?”
A chuckle came from behind me.
I turned, a blush warming my face. Luc had been joined by the owner of Elliot Securities, Paxton Elliot. Both laughed quietly.
“Hey.” I gave them a nod. “Thanks for helping.”
Luc grinned. “I would say any time, but you seemed to have it under control.”
I chuckled nervously. “Still, thanks.”
I rubbed a hand over my face. “I’m grabbing a burger and heading home.”
They stayed with me, waiting for my food. As I tucked the paper bag filled with deliciousness into my backpack, Luc offered me a ride.
“Nah, I’m good. My car’s just out front.” The last hour had allowed me to brush off my latest bad memory; my hands were steady now the adrenaline had worn off.
Luc shrugged. “I’ll follow you home, then.”
“I’m okay. You don’t have to.”
I ducked my head, fighting another blush. “Okay.”
Luc trailed me to my car. I waited while he got on his Ducati.
My apartment was in the city but not exactly in the most vibrant place to live. A set of four buildings, each only two storeys high, I lived on the second floor of the third building. All the buildings were red brick, cracked concrete, and in various states of disrepair. The general sense of abandonment and the fact they attracted people of questionable habits lent them their nickname – the drug flats.
I peeled off at my driveway, waving a hand out the window in thanks. I expected Luc to keep going, instead he turned in to my complex, following.
I pulled into my allocated space in the open park, expecting Luc to circle, then leave. Instead, he parked beside my car. He didn’t say anything as I led him up the stairs to my apartment. The hallway sensor light stayed off as we headed to my door. I made a mental note to drag another fluorescent bulb from my supply. Maintenance never did anything.
I hit the locks on my door, there were three, and opened it up. I paused, uncertain. I’d never invited anyone here. I’d always claimed it was much too small, which wasn’t exactly a lie.
“Want to come in for a coffee or something?”
Luc glanced down the hall, frowning, his gaze sharp. Down the corridor, my neighbours’ door had opened, their TV blasting into the hall.
“Yeah.” A muscle in his jaw ticked as he watched their door slowly close.
My small one-bedroom unit had a tiny bathroom, minus the bath. The shower felt more like a standing coffin, but the bathroom had a small mirror, a basin, and a toilet. I’d painted the unit, trying to create my own little oasis. Plants overflowed pots in every corner and on every bookshelf. On my kitchen windowsill sat two small rows of assorted teacups full of fresh herbs ready for cooking. My eye-bleed of a couch was a horrific explosion of florals from the early nineties. Used but comfortable, I’d picked it up at the Salvation Army store for a bargain.
The most expensive thing in my apartment was my TV. There was no other word for it except massive. Huge. A monstrosity. It had taken the delivery guys forty minutes to work out how to navigate it up the narrow staircase and through my door.
Luc looked around as I moved to the kitchen.
“I’ve got instant, is that okay?”
He shrugged off his jacket while moving to straddle one of my bar stools.
I set the kettle to boil and opened my dinner bag, munching on a still warm chip.
As the water heated, I turned, leaning back against the kitchen bench opposite Luc. I picked up my burger, taking a big bite. He watched me, a slight wrinkle between his eyes.
“What?” I asked, swallowing.
Luc raised an eyebrow. “Why this place?”
The kettle whistled, and I set about making our drinks.
“You know.” I shrugged, back to him. “It’s cheap and close to everything.” I splashed one sugar and a dash of milk into his coffee.
“Cheap? I do your evaluations. I know how much I pay you.” He said it teasingly, but there was an undercurrent.
I handed him the mug, then retreated to the other side of my kitchen, blowing a little on the tea as I avoided his eyes.
“Everyone needs money, Luc. Even me.” I dodged his actual question.
After a long silence, he shrugged, changing the subject. “You’ve got a freaking huge TV.”
I grinned. It had taken me two years to decide to buy it.
“All the better to get my geek on,” I teased back.
Luc stood, moving to look over my DVD collection. I chewed another few chips, watching.
My collection took up half of one wall. The other half held my book collection alphabetised by author and series. Comic books were the bottom half of the bookshelf, novels the top.
“Got anything I’d like?”
I had to think. “Depends. I do action, I don’t do horror.”
“I do action.”
I sat the remains of my burger on the counter, dusting my hands on my jean leg as I moved to the wall of epic DVD-ness and started sifting through my series.
“Hmm… animated sci-fi?” I glanced over, and he shook his head.
“I do Saturday morning cartoons, that’s as far as I go.”
“Right,” I murmured, looking back through my collection. “What about Saturday night cartoons?”
“So long as it’s not some Star Trek shit, I’m open to it.”
I laughed. “You’d like it if you tried it! Here, it’s an adult cartoon. Archer. Heard of it?”
He shook his head.
“It’s one of my favourite series. It’s hilarious and action and reminds me of our workplace sometimes. Short and sweet, only a few seasons so far. You may like it.”
Luc laughed as he looked at the cover. “Boobs, guns, and explosions? I’m in.”
“Speaking of explosions. Thanks again for tonight. Sorry you had to get involved.”
His face darkened. “I hope that woman leaves the dick. Shit like that, it pisses me off.”
Warmth pooled in my belly. “Me too.”
“You did good, Evie. Handled yourself real well.”
The warmth expanded.
You need to tell him.
Tomorrow. I’ll tell him tomorrow. I promised myself.
“Anyways.” I fluttered my hands about, suddenly flustered. “It’s getting late. I’m sure you have places to go, people to see, women to kiss.” The last bit accidentally popped out. I immediately blushed.
Smooth. Real smooth there, Evie.
A grin stole across his lips, and his brilliant blue eyes darkened just a hint. He leaned in slowly. “No to the first two, maybe to–”
His phone interrupted him. I jumped away, unsuccessfully trying to hide the blush burning up my neck, colouring my cheeks. Swearing, Luc pulled the mobile out and pressed the screen.
He jerked upright, body shifting to alert.
“You are fucking kidding me.” He paused, listening. “Shit. Who do you need?” His head swung to me. “I’ve got her here.” Another pause. “No, I followed her home after some jerk grabbed her in the bar.” His eyes raked me up and down, and a small smile played at the corners of his mouth. “Yeah, she does. Okay. We’ll be there in thirty.” He hit the end button and slipped it back into his pocket. “Declan.”
Declan had the night shift at Elliot Securities.
“That dick Rueben, from Grosford and Sons?”
I had to think for a moment. “The one we’re tracking for embezzlement?”
“That’s him. Grosford just got the call. His money is gone. Declan’s calling us in.”
“Damn!” I headed for my purse. “Goddamn it! I wanted to sleep tonight.”
I moved to grab my keys, but Luc stopped me.
“No time. You ride with me.”
“I’ll drop you home. Let’s go.”