“Hey, you’d make a great mother,” Pru said sincerely. “You’re strong and smart, and you always stick up for those you care about. Seriously, any kid would be lucky to have you as a mom.”
“The whole birth thing though,” Elle said. “It just seems like a poor exit strategy, doesn’t it?”
Someone tapped her on the shoulder and she turned to face a guy in a very nice suit, looking like a million bucks. And his smile looked like another million. Mike, she remembered, one of Archer’s clients.
“Hey,” he said. “Fancy meeting you here.”
Uh-huh. “You know I work in the building,” she said.
He rubbed his jaw and gave a wry smile. “Okay, so I was hoping to see you here. I’d really like to ask you to dance because that’s my signature move, but Archer told me very firmly that you were taken.”
She put her drink down and purposefully inhaled a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “He said what?”
Mike nodded and took a few nuts out of the mixed nuts bowl on the bar. “Yeah. He was pretty clear about it, actually.”
Archer, the man who didn’t want her for himself, had said she was taken. She could actually feel steam coming out of her ears. She hadn’t had a guy into her in . . . well, forever. In fact, she hadn’t had sex in two years and her parts were threatening to mutiny. “He said I was taken,” she repeated, needing to be sure before she planned Archer’s death.
His slow, painful death.
“He did,” Mike said. “I think his exact words were ‘off-limits’ and ‘don’t even think about it.’”
She might have growled. She certainly seethed. But honestly, a lot of the temper was at herself because when would she learn? Archer would never stop thinking of her as a responsibility, and she really did owe it to herself to move on, to find a man who could see her for more than just a scared, vulnerable girl.
“Whoa there, rebel,” Spence murmured behind her, having come in during the exchange. “No sense committing murder before you’ve finished your drink.”
“Are you sure?” she asked. “Because I see a lot of sense in it.”
Spence shook his head. “I’m not in the mood to bail you out of jail today.”
“Tomorrow then?” she asked, but sighed at his firm expression. “Oh forget it. I hate orange and I think jumpsuits are the work of the devil.”
“That’s my girl,” Spence said. “Always thinking.”
Mike, who’d followed the conversation closely, grinned. “So . . . you’re saying Archer was mistaken.”
Oh yes. Mistaken. On so many levels. And she mentally tossed in the towel. Enough was enough, it really was time to move on from him and get herself that life she wanted. Past time. “I’m saying Archer shouldn’t speak for me,” she said as she took a second, closer look at Mike, who was successful, sharp, and quite easy on the eyes. Sure, he didn’t send her heart rate into the stratosphere, but hey, maybe she could work on that.
“I’m sitting over there, having drinks with some buddies.” He gestured behind him to a table where three guys were drinking beer and watching a game on one of the big-screen TVs on the wall. “They bet me that I wouldn’t be able to start a conversation with the most beautiful woman in the bar.” He grinned. “Wanna prove them wrong and go out to dinner with me on their dime?”
Deciding she needed a second opinion, she glanced over at Spence who gave her a slow head shake.
“Negative,” Spence said. “It’s a bad idea.”
Okay, never mind the second opinion. She turned back to Mike. Being impulsive had never been her thing but there was a first time for everything. “Yes,” she said.
“Oh Christ,” Spence muttered.
Mike grinned. “Great, let’s go.”
“Go?” she asked, having expected they’d stay in the pub.
“Oh, I’ve got something different from the pub in mind, great as it is,” he said. “Trust me?”
Mike just laughed. “An honest woman. I love it. And smart too. How about this. I promise you a good time, and if I fail you can sic Archer on me to kick my ass. How’s that?”
“I fight my own battles,” she said.
“Fine. You can kick my ass.” He was nudging her to the front door of the pub, his hand on the small of her back when Elle felt a prickle of awareness at the nape of her neck. Turning her head, her gaze tracked to the back of the pub, where Archer had come out of the pool room, cue in hand, eyes on her.
For the briefest of seconds she hesitated there at the pub door, Mike at her side, Archer in her peripheral vision. There was no expression on his face, none. He was his usual cool, calm, impenetrable self and it was that, in the end that got to her. If he didn’t want her to go out with someone else, well then he should’ve asked her out himself—before she’d changed her mind about him, that is.
“You okay?” Mike asked, eyes on her, seemingly unaware of Archer’s presence.
She had no idea, to be honest. She suspected she wasn’t but that had never stopped her from pretending to be. “Of course. I’m fine,” she said, exercising her one true superpower of shoving her emotions down deep.
Thirty minutes later she found herself boarding a helicopter for a tour of the city. She’d never done anything like it in her entire life and she could feel her heart pounding in her throat excitedly as they rose straight up into the air.
Mike, sitting next to her, proved to be a great tour guide. He showed her a view of San Francisco she’d never seen from this angle before. The Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, Fisherman’s Wharf . . . They even flew above Point Reyes, where she could see the entire mountainside covered in a blanket of greens and oranges and browns, the cliffs rolling toward the sea. Sunlight glinted off the deep blue ocean.
And then halfway through their hour of flight time, the pilot spoke privately to Mike through their comms.
“What’s wrong?” Elle asked as they turned back.
Mike smiled but it was a wry one. “You absolutely certain that you’re not taken?”
“Of course I’m sure!”
He reached for her hand. “The heli belongs to an influential businessman buddy of mine, one who hires Archer’s company for his security.”