Chapter 07: Atomic Coffee

“You can call me Shane” was standing too close for comfort.

Hell, across the room would probably be too close for comfort. This close to him, however, just an arm’s length away, and she could smell him.

He didn’t smell of pecan pie and molasses, but he didn’t smell bad. It was a clean scent, not cologne or deodorant, just a sexy man smell that reminded her yet again of how long it had been since she had been with someone.

The confining walls of the office galley made him seem even taller than he had in the doorway of her office a few moments ago. She hadn’t even noticed the rest of her co-workers departures from the floor, she had been so lost in her work.

“Would you like some coffee?” Lila asked, nervous and hoping to look anywhere else than at his stubbled jaw, sexy lips, lean hips, and muscled forearms.

A man like this, well, he could pick her up, set her against a wall, and…

“Sure.”

His voice, liquid, warm, and she shivered a little in response as she turned away. The coffee maker’s light was off, the pot empty and dry upside down in the drain tray.

Well of course it was. The last pot had been made, and consumed, hours ago. I’ll have to make a new pot.

For a moment she paused and considered telling him they were out of luck. But that would mean looking up, at his sexy smile and those warm brown eyes and dark hair. She caught herself imagining him walking down the street, random women falling down in front of him, throwing their phone numbers at him, or simply humping his leg like sex-crazed dogs. She stifled a giggle at the last image. No, she couldn’t look up, not yet.

The coffee packets were in here somewhere, or had they switched to bulk? Lila couldn’t remember the last time she had made coffee. Anytime she offered to, or was even caught doing anything more complicated than operating the microwave her co-workers looked terrified. Cooking was not her forte, coffee wasn’t either, according to Penny and Louis who, upon tasting her idea of coffee the first day she had worked there ordered her to never, ever touch the coffeemaker again. It didn’t matter what they were doing during their day, if she uttered the words, “There’s no coffee, shall I make some?” one of them would jump up and offer.

She sorted through the drawers, locating a bag of coffee, along with creamer and sugar packets.

Shane watched her closely. She appeared nervous, jumpy, but not necessarily as a result of the attack. She avoided looking at him, staring instead at the coffeepot as if it were a great mystery. Her body was stiff and she maintained as large a distance as she could – a feat in the narrow galley-shaped kitchenette.

He could only deduce it had to do with him. He wasn’t used to that. Women tended to like him, hell they damn near threw themselves at him, but Lila Benoit seemed to be doing everything she could to keep her distance. And the way she was opening all of the drawers in the kitchen told him that she didn’t normally make coffee. This suspicion was confirmed as he watched her add nearly triple the coffee he would have used for a full pot, and then overfilled the coffeemaker with water, sending a torrent of water spilling over the side.

“Oh…well I…” she glanced up at him for a moment, stared at his mouth, paled slightly, and glanced away.

What a perplexing woman.

“I don’t make coffee very often, perhaps we should go to Starbucks.”

“No.” He said it firmly, in a tone that brooked no argument. Lila’s hackles raised and she was distracted from her nervous response.

Ugh, he’s a chauvinist pig, I knew he was too good to be true!

“I beg your pardon?” She tried to give it a frosty sound, but it came out sounding breathless.

Like a googly-eyed teenager.

“I said no. It isn’t safe in public spaces.”

Shane deftly reached past her, above her head, and pulled out two mugs from an open shelf. One was labeled “Cat Mom” and she could see the script on the other side – “The perfect child has four legs and a tail.” He handed Lila a black and white one that read “I work hard so my cat can live a better life.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” she sputtered, “I don’t need someone to wrap me up in a cocoon and protect me from the world. I can take care of myself.”

Shane leaned back, giving her a once-over, his eyes lingering on the bruises, her bandaged right arm, “No doubt you can dissuade the casual attacker, wannabe rapist, or garden variety lech.”

His eyes moved down her body, cataloging her curves, the tone of her muscles, admiring the shape of her ass and how it fit so perfectly in her pencil skirt. She was fit, obviously kept in shape, and definitely had some basic self-defense moves. She wouldn’t have lasted as long as she did down in that dark garage without them. But moves and athleticism notwithstanding, she wasn’t going to stop a trained killer.

Lila straightened under his gaze, lifted her chin and eyed him defensively, “I managed pretty well the other day.”

He nodded and smiled, “Yes, you did.”

Then he moved closer, reached up, placed a warm hand on her neck. Lila shuddered at his touch and he felt himself respond.

Her scent was intoxicating.

Instead of backing off, he used it, stepping even closer, invading her personal space, combining her fear and the desire he saw returned in her eyes to bring his point home.

“Until he had you here.” He slid his hand to the same position her would-be killer had used. “You only had three seconds to get out of it. And did you? Or was that when the neighbor showed up?”

It wasn’t the work of a trained killer, these bruises, but the man had definitely been hired. A scan of the note scrawled next to her photo flashed in his mind.

Make it look like a burglary or rape gone wrong. 

“He would have choked you until you passed out, raped you, murdered you, and left your body there on the cold cement.”

Shane had seen plenty of scumbag rap sheets. Rape would have been just one of the guy’s list of talents. He’d dug into Tor further on his way here. The guy who had taken the assignment, Dominic Riehl, had done two years in Leavenworth for statutory rape, and another stretch of eight years after that at Farmington Correctional for forcible sodomy and attempted murder. He would have strangled the woman to death if a group of frat guys hadn’t been on some bro camping trip and taken that particular trail.

Dominic Riehl was bad news, and Shane didn’t have to guess at how it was supposed to end, the note said it all. The only question was, why Lila Benoit?

Lila’s breath caught at the feel of Shane’s hands – despite his gentle touch on her throat. A hedonistic rush of desire and fear washed over her.

He was so damned strong…just imagining his hands sliding down her, brushing against her breasts, settling on her waist, cupping her ass in his hands, those lips on her mouth.

His eyes locked on hers. She was pretty. Usually, he found himself attracted to more voluptuous women. A woman like this, with small breasts and a tight ass, were not his usual turn-ons. Despite this, he realized that the softness of her skin had sent all kinds of haywire messages to his libido, and another wave of desire crashed over him. He had thought he had control of this. He let go of her throat and backed up a step, embarrassed by his own response. He was a professional, this was against The Code, his Code.

You don’t fuck the clients Ellis. You keep them alive. You do your job.

Shane forced his attention back to the job. The job, the client, whose perky breasts and tight ass notwithstanding, needed his protection. The scent of atomic, acrid coffee cut across his senses.

“Coffee?”

Lila nodded, broke eye contact and took a breath. Shane Ellis was a serious hottie, but obviously a misogynist. A well-intentioned, well-muscled, sexual god of a man with a hero complex. He had shown up here, without being asked or encouraged, and was busy telling her, Lila, how she couldn’t take care of herself.

If he utters “little woman” I’m kneeing the son-of-a-bitch in the balls and leaving.

Lila promised herself. She watched as he poured the acrid coffee into the two mugs. It smelled awful, far too strong, and she wondered if it was possible that the spoons would disintegrate in its intensity. She took the offered cup, topping it to the brim with tiny cups of cream and two packets of sugar. She set it on the counter, carefully stirred the mess, and then took a small sip. Ugh, it tasted awful.

Shane watched her with something akin to amusement. He took a gulp of his own coffee and regretted it instantly.

“This should come with a warning label,” he said gruffly, pouring the contents down the drain.

“Did all that milk and sugar crap you added make yours any more palatable?”

Lila choked down a second sip. “Um, it’s, oh hell.” She poured it down the drain, the swirl of creamer chasing the straight black, slipping out of sight into the darkness. “I’m, um, I’m not allowed to make coffee.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Shane commented dryly.

She glanced up and saw him smile briefly. Her body sang in response. He had one of the sexiest smiles she had ever seen. Hands, hips, right here on the counter.

Just bend me over, hike up my skirt from behind, and oh sweet Jesus.

Lila bit down on her lower lip.

His smile dropped. “Ms. Benoit, we need to talk about your protection detail.”

Her fantasy fled, and his mouth was all business, no sweet, sexy smile.

“I suppose we would, if I had hired you, Mr. Ellis, but…”

“Call me Shane.”

“Shane, then. But I haven’t hired you, I doubt I could afford your services.” She paused, her words dying on her lips at the look on his face.

Did that sound like she had just called him a prostitute? Oh god, not a prostitute, a gigolo. That’s what they call the men. Strong hands, washboard abs, the sex would be…

“Athletic.” The word just popped out. “I mean…”

His left eyebrow quirked up, confused as she tried to get control of her mouth.

“Word salad, I’ve uh, got it. The scuffle the other night, I knocked my head, and,” she nodded, shrugging weakly and avoiding his penetrating gaze, “Sorry, word salad.”

Oh my GOD, word salad? Really? The man is going to think I’m a complete lunatic!

“Ms. Benoit.”

“Call me Lila.”

“Lila.”

“Word salad.” Maybe if she just kept repeating it she would believe it herself.

“Right. Look, Lila, you need my protection. At least until this is looked into further.”
“But as I said, I can’t afford it, I’m sure I can’t.” Lila could feel the panic rising right alongside her libido. If this man came one step closer she was was pretty sure she would start humping his well-muscled leg like a dog. He was so hot, so amazingly sexy, and strong, and that voice, that voice.

Pecan pie and molasses, a spot of real whipped cream. Mm, yeah.

“Lila, I don’t handle the books. I don’t do negotiations. My boss said this is on the house and I just read the folder, go where I’m told, and keep my clients alive.” He eyed her sternly, “And I’m sticking by you until this mess gets sorted out. Understand?”

Lila nodded, managing a small squeak that she hoped sounded like a yes, but didn’t.

More of a pathetic whine, really.

If she didn’t get control of her response to him she was pretty sure she was going to turn to jelly or tear her clothes off, possibly both.

He tilted his head, slightly bewildered, then smiled again, reassuring, almost paternal in nature. “Come on, we need to take you somewhere safe, and I’ll explain it on the way to your apartment.”

Her legs practically shook off of her body, “My apartment?”

Shane nodded, “Yes, your apartment. I’m assuming you will want clothes, toiletries.”

Lila shook her head, that wasn’t the answer she expected. Although if he had gripped her ass and lifted her up against the kitchen.

My mind is never leaving the gutter, is it?

“I need clothes?”

He arched an eyebrow, and she blushed. She could feel the red lighting up her cheeks, her neck, hell, even her ears. “I mean, why do I need clothes?”

Oh yeah, great, now I sound like a complete slut, or nudist, or, or…

At the other end of the floor, a muted click of a door closing caught Shane’s attention and his mood changed immediately, switching from solicitous and mildly amused to another person entirely. It wasn’t just that his entire demeanor changed, but also an almost physical metamorphosis seemed to occur. He felt changed into someone different, capable, and lethal in a period of mere seconds. Beneath his shirt, his muscles flexed as he assumed an alert position.

Lila stared at him and wondered if it were possible to be even more turned on by this handsome “call me Shane” stranger. He reached a hand to his belt, shifting his weight to the balls of feet, alert and listening. His free hand reached out, pulling her close to his side.

His lips grazed her ear as he murmured, “Who works here late? Cleaning staff? Co-workers?”

His left hand eased a lethal, gray handgun from a holster she hadn’t even noticed until now, his eyes searching for any movement in the corridor outside.

Her heart rate sped up.

Hot man. Danger. It’s like something out of a movie. Come with me if you want to live.

She whispered back, “The cleaning crew comes through later, eleven, maybe? And everyone else went home.”

She clutched his arm, close enough to smell him. No cologne, oh no, not Shane Ellis.

Instead, a clean, almost woodsy scent came from him. He smelled amazing.

The footfalls, noticeable only if one concentrated, were heading past them, towards a bank of offices, Lila’s included.

“Stay here.” He mouthed to her and her eyes widened. Suddenly it was all feeling very real and not so sexy, just terrifying.

She shook her head at him, but he had already turned away and began to move silently down the hall. In the distance, Lila heard the door to the office open and close again.

Does that mean someone left? Or someone else came in? Who were these guys? And what do they want with me?

Lila’s heart began to race, her body shaking. She nearly screamed when Shane reappeared, his hand warm on her arm as he pulled her towards him, his mouth at her ear.

“A second one just came in. We have to go, now.” He whispered. “Stay close. Follow my lead.” And with her arm firmly in his grip, he moved out of the kitchen.