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The building was impressive, a sleek grey tower with a spire at the top. It was easily taller than anything else for miles, yet I did not hesitate as I entered, checking the register to find the specific office I was searching for. As I walked through the ground-floor lobby, I caught the many-mirrored flash of my own reflection. Six feet four, blond, blue-eyed, wearing my ice-cream whites for this occasion, hat tucked under my arm. Normally I hated wearing them, not wanting to look like a kiss-ass, but as I stepped into the elevator, intercepting the glances from womenâ€”and menâ€¦ Mmmmm. If I chose to hold that eye contact, I knew I wouldnâ€™t be alone this afternoon. Iâ€™d wind up in a fancy hotel room, since this was uptown, and fingers would hurriedly unbutton my uniform to touch my dangling medals and other dangling parts...
As the elevator shot up at a dizzying speed that I enjoyed to the max, I couldnâ€™t help but smile. "Piece of cake," I said.
A few heads turned at my words. I saw the curiosity, the gazes on my body. I knew theyâ€™d whisper about me after I left their tame office. I spent a few minutes wondering what kind of sexual fantasies would feature me as the star attraction.
The elevator opened, and I strode onto my floor, catching the gaze of a young man running the desk of the Witherspoon Architectural Firm. I gave him a cocky smile, and he immediately warmed as his eyes roamed all over me.
Uh-huh. He wasnâ€™t bad-looking. I decided I liked his blue eyes and wanted to try out the restâ€¦
I was the last to swing out because Iâ€™d been daydreaming I was my latest hero, Navy SEAL Rock Daniels, so of course the fucking elevator caught on my wheel as it started to close. I shoved through the doors with a thud and coloured hotly when the young man overseeing the desk looked up with startled blue eyes, studying me warily.
My cheeks were still warm, and I bent my head, shielding my face with my baseball cap. It gave me a moment as I rolled by a console table with a single white orchid resting on its glossy surface. The floor was some kind of pigmented concrete that made my wheels rattle extra loud. In the lobby were framed drawings of award-winning buildings, and goat-hair rugs that were deep and luxurious and something I had to be careful to avoid.
I knew I should have shaved, but Miranda had needed a babysitter and twenty minutes had turned into an hour and a half in no time. Not that her kid did anything but sleep in a crib. But someone had to be around while his mom went for a job interview.
As I rolled closer to the desk, I discreetly sniffed myself. Not too bad. My Grateful Dead T-shirt was wrinkled, and I seemed to remember I had slept in it last night. I needed a haircut, but I was no dazzler. Brown hair, brown eyes.
The kid was still staring at me, which was a sharp reminder that my T-shirt, my lack of shaveâ€”none of that mattered. What mattered were the wheels. All anyone saw were the wheels.
But to hell with it. I was here, so Iâ€™d say my piece.
His desk plate gave his name as Dan Manners. I smiled at him, trying for harmlessâ€”the determined side of me Iâ€™d pull out later, if I had to. "I donâ€™t have an appointment, sir." Shit. Iâ€™d stopped sirring and maâ€™aming people a while back. The high-class building had me fucked up.
"Uh-huh," he said. "Lookâ€”"
"But I really need to speak to one of the partners here." He wouldnâ€™t meet my eyes. One look, kind of sliding over me, then the chair, then away from the chair.
"We are really busy today. Midweek, you know..." He typed something into his laptop, suiting his actions to his words and no doubt wishing I would disappear.
I could tell him I wouldnâ€™t be that easy.
I studied him, his cream cable-knit sweater. Business casual, I thought they called it. By his laptop was that new bottled water with vitamins in it that tasted like unmixed Jell-O.
Okay, no eye contact and I could tell he was getting ready to dive into one of the other doors, leaving me until I gave up. I leant forward and gave him an earnest look. "Dan, if you donâ€™t get one of the partners out here right fucking now, all work on Troubadour Towers will come to a halt on Monday."
He froze, and I could tell he was feeling threatened. It was kind of flattering.
"Do you have a problem, sir?" he asked politely while he pressed a button on his sleek console. I was betting it was security.
"Yes, I have aâ€”" I cut off another curse word. I was angry. I had good reason. But if I didnâ€™t keep it civil, I wouldnâ€™t accomplish my goal. And there were people who were counting on me again. I couldnâ€™t let them down. "Theyâ€™re pouring the cement for the underground parking right now, but if those trucks canâ€™t get through on Monday morning, that puts you guys behind, right? And Iâ€™m betting your bosses wonâ€™t like that."
Dan seemed to reassess me. "Is this some kind ofâ€¦? Look, thereâ€™s nothing in that neighbourhood. No historic sites, no nothing. Itâ€™s just graffiti and some dealers and abandoned houses. I did the research myself."
My cheeks burned with colour, but this time not from embarrassment. "Thereâ€™s the neighbourhood."
He blinked. "Uh."
"People live there, and we have a problem."
His face darkened. "There is no way Mr Johnson will talk to you," he said.
"Who is he?"
"Earl Johnson. He is the senior partner." Dan might have been referring to God from his tone.
"This is not a shakedown. I want to see someone. Now."