Hot Winter NightsJill Shalvis
An Excerpt from Playing for Keeps Chapter 1
About the Author
By Jill Shalvis
About the Publisher
It took Lucas Knight longer than it should have to realize he had a woman in his bed, but to be fair, he had a bitch of a hangover. Even worse than that, last night was a blur, prompting him to take quick stock. One, there was a bundle of sweet, soft curves against him. Two, his head was currently threatening to secede from the United States Of Lucas. And three, his side hurt like . . . well, like he’d been shot.
It’d been two weeks since he’d gotten caught in some cross fire on the job and he hadn’t yet been cleared for more than light duty—something he’d obviously managed to ignore last night given that he was palming a nice, warm, feminine ass.
Straining his brain, he remembered taking a pain med before going to O’Riley’s Pub to meet up with some friends. A client had been there, someone he’d recently helped save from a multimillion dollar corporate espionage. The guy had ordered shots to toast to Lucas and . . . shit. Knowing better than to mix pain meds and alcohol, he’d hesitated, but everyone had been waiting on him, glasses hoisted in the air. Thinking just one shot couldn’t hurt anything, he’d knocked back the drink.
Clearly, he’d been wrong and it’d been enough to mess him up big-time, something he hadn’t been in years, not since his brother Josh had been killed. Shoving that away for another time—or never—Lucas cracked open one eye, but when his retina was stabbed by a streak of sunlight glaring in through the window, he immediately slammed it shut again. Taking a deep breath, he told himself to suck it up and opened both eyes this time, learning two additional facts.
He was naked and completely uncovered.
And the woman snugged up at his side was rolled up in his comforter like a burrito.
What. The. Hell.
A few more images slowly began to filter into his brain. Kicking ass at the pool table and winning two hundred bucks from his boss, Archer, who ran Hunt Investigations where Lucas worked as a security specialist.
Dancing with a sexy brunette . . .
And then making his way upstairs, but not alone.
His head was pounding too hard to remember anything more, but clearly the brunette had not only come up, but stayed. She was cuddled up too close to see her face, especially with the way she had the entire blanket wrapped around herself. The only thing visible was a mass of shiny brown waves peeking out the top.
Holding his breath, Lucas slowly pulled away until he could slide off his bed.
The brunette’s hair never so much as quivered.
Letting out a relieved breath, he shoved on the clothes he’d so thoughtfully left for himself on the floor—seriously, he was never taking another pain pill or drinking alcohol again—and headed for the door.
But unable to do it, unable to be the guy who just walked out, he stopped and detoured to his kitchen to make her a coffee. Leaving her caffeine was a nice gesture, right? Right, but . . . shit. He was out of coffee. Not surprisingly since he usually grabbed his from work because Molly, who ran the office at Hunt Investigations, made world-class coffee. And since one of the benefits of living on the fourth floor of the Pacific Pier Building and working on the second floor meant convenience, he texted the coffee master himself:
Any chance you’d send up a cup of coffee via the dumbwaiter?
A few seconds later, from his bedroom came a cell phone buzzing with an unfamiliar tone and he froze. If his plan was to leave before the awkward morning after—and that was always the plan—he was on borrowed time.
Since nothing came back to him from Molly, he moved onto Plan B and scrawled out a quick note: Sorry, had to get to work, take your time.
Then he hesitated. Did she even know his name? Having no idea, he added: I’m leaving cash for an Uber or Lyft—Lucas.
He dropped some money next to the note and grimaced at himself for still being a complete asshole. He stared down at his phone.
Still nothing from Molly, which meant she wasn’t going to save the day. She was smart, sharp, and amazing at her job, but for reasons unknown, she wasn’t exactly interested in pleasing anyone, especially him. Locking up, he left his apartment.
The Pacific Pier building was over a century old and sat in the center of the Cow Hollow district of San Francisco. It was five stories of corbeled brick, exposed iron trusses, and big windows built around a legendary fountain. Retail and businesses took up the ground and second floors, with residential on the third and fourth. The fifth-floor penthouse belonged to his friend Spence Baldwin, who owned the building.
All of it was currently decorated for the holidays like it was about to star in a Hallmark movie.
Lucas jogged down two flights of stairs to the second floor, passing by the building manager’s office and the offices of a nonprofit to get to Hunt Investigations. He was fully prepared to be blasted by Molly at her front desk—not just for his text, but for his appearance at all. Off duty since the shooting, he wasn’t supposed to be back at work until next week, and that was if his doctor cleared him. But Lucas couldn’t stay home another day, a fact that didn’t have anything to do with the stranger in his bed.
Or at least not all due to the stranger in his bed.
He scrubbed a hand over his unshaved jaw, feeling incredibly tense, which for a guy who’d apparently gotten laid last night, didn’t make much sense.
Nor did the fact that sitting on a bench outside of Hunt Investigations’ front door were two old ladies dressed up as elves. Knitting elves.
The one on the left looked to be making a Christmas stocking. The one on the right was working on something too small to see. They smiled at him in greeting, lips coated in bright red lipstick. Left elf had a smudge of it on her teeth and her little elf cap seemed to quiver on top of her white hair.
Right Elf pulled out her phone. “I just got a text from Louise,” she told Left Elf. “It says, ‘Don’t be late for work tonight, Santa’s turned into Grinch. SMH.’” She blinked. “What does S-M-H mean?”
“Shaking my head,” Left Elf said.
“Oh thank goodness,” Right Elf said, putting a hand to her heart. “I thought it meant Sex Might Help.”
They both cackled over that before they saw Lucas.
“Hello there, young man,” Left Elf said. “We were hoping you were Molly. We’ve got a problem involving a bad Santa and she said to meet her here.”
“A bad Santa,” Lucas repeated, starting to wonder if maybe he was still in bed dreaming this day.
“Yes, we work for him. Obviously,” Right Elf said, gesturing to herself.
“You’re . . . Santa’s elves,” he said slowly. “And you work for him at . . . the North Pole?”
“Right.” Left Elf snorted. “We work right here in the city like you, at the Christmas Village in Soma, in to
o tight costumes for too little money. Honey, didn’t your mama ever tell you Santa isn’t real?”
Okay, so they didn’t believe they were real elves. That was a relief. Lucas had a great uncle who sometimes thought he was Batman, but that was only on the nights he drank away his social security checks with his cronies.
“Santa promised us half of the profits,” Right Elf said. “To go to the charities of our choice. Last year we made enough to give big and hit up Vegas for a long weekend.”
Left Elf nodded with a smile. “I’ve still got Elvis’s underwear from that big impersonator party we were invited to, remember, Liz?”
Liz nodded. “But this year, we’re not getting anything. Santa says there aren’t any profits, that he’s barely breaking even. But that can’t be true because he just bought himself a brand-new Cadillac. Molly’s my neighbor, you see.”
Lucas didn’t see at all. He was good at certain things, such as at his job of investigating and seeking out the asshats of the world and righting justice. He was good at taking care of his close-knit family. He was good, when he wanted to be, in the kitchen. And—if he said so himself—also in bed.
But he was not good in social situations, such as those that required small talk, especially with old ladies dressed up as elves. “This really isn’t the sort of case that Hunt Investigations takes on,” he said.
“But Molly said you’re an elite security and investigative firm that employs finders and fixers for hire, whoever needs them.”
Not strictly true. A lot of the jobs they took on were routine; criminal, corporate and insurance investigations along with elite security contracts, surveillance, fraud, and corporate background checks. But some weren’t routine at all, such as forensic investigations, the occasional big bond bounty hunting, government contract work . . .
Nailing a bad Santa wasn’t on the list.
“Do you know when Molly might arrive?” Left Elf asked. She was looking at him even as her knitting needles continued to move at the speed of light. “We’ll just wait for her.”
“I don’t know her schedule,” Lucas said. And that was the truth. Hunt Investigations was run by the biggest badass he’d ever met. Archer Hunt, and he employed a team that was the best of the best. Lucas was honored to be a part of that team. All of them, himself included, would step in front of a bullet for each other, and had.
Literally, in his case.
The lone woman in their midst was Molly Malone, equally fearless, though in other ways. She was the one to keep them all on their toes. No one would dare venture into her domain at her desk and put their hands on her stuff to check her schedule, but he could at least ask around. “I’ll go check her ETA,” he said and headed inside.
He found Archer and Joe in the employee room inhaling donuts. Grabbing one for himself, he nodded to Archer and looked at Joe, one of Lucas’s best friends and also his work partner. “Where’s your sister?”
Joe shrugged and went for another donut. “Not her keeper. Why?”
“There’re two elves outside waiting to talk to her.”
“Still?” Archer shook his head. “I told them we wouldn’t take their case.” He headed out front. Lucas followed because if his social niceties game was stale, Archer had zero social niceties game.
“Ladies,” Archer said to the elves. “As I explained earlier, your case isn’t the kind of case we take on.”
“Oh we heard you,” Left Elf said. “We’re just waiting for Molly. She promised to help us personally if you wouldn’t.”
Archer looked pained. “Molly doesn’t take on cases here. She’s office staff.”
The two elves looked at each other and then tucked away their knitting. “Fine,” Left Elf said. “We’ll just go straight to her at home then.”
Archer waited until they’d gotten on the elevator before turning to Lucas. “Why are you here?”
“Gee, good to see you too, boss man.”
“Let me rephrase,” Archer said. “How’s your side? You know, where you have a GSW?”
“It’s no longer a gunshot wound. It’s practically just a scratch now. I’m good enough to get back to work.”
“Uh-huh.” Archer looked unimpressed. And . . . still pissed. Lucas had been hoping that he’d gotten himself out of the doghouse by now, but apparently not.
“I didn’t get a report from your doctor clearing you,” Archer said.
Lucas squelched a grimace. His doctor had told him—repeatedly—at least one more week. But he’d be dead of boredom by another week. “We’re having a minor difference in opinion.”
“Shit.” Archer swiped a hand down his face. “You know I can’t put you back on the job until he clears you.”
“If I stay home another day, I’ll lose my shit.”
“It’s only been two weeks since you were shot and nearly bled out before we got you to the hospital,” Archer said. “Way too close of a call.”
“Practically ancient history.”
Archer shook his head. “Not even close. And I told you to abort. Instead, you sent the team out to safety and then you alone hauled ass deeper into the yacht, knowing it was on fire thanks to our asshole perps trying to sink it for the insurance payout.”
“I went deeper because there was still someone on board,” Lucas reminded him. “Their lead suspect’s teenage kid. He’d been holed up and had fallen asleep watching TV. He would’ve died if I’d left him.”
“And instead you almost did.”
Lucas blew out a breath. They’d had this argument in the hospital. They’d had it twice since. He didn’t want to have it again. Especially since he wasn’t sorry he’d disobeyed a direct order. “We saved an innocent. You’d have done the same damn thing. So would any of us.”
Archer looked over at Joe, who’d been silent through this entire exchange.
Joe lifted a shoulder, an admission that yeah, he might’ve done the same thing. And so would Archer, and Lucas damn well knew it.
“Shit,” Archer finally said. “Fine. I’ll unground you, but only for light duty until I hear from your doctor personally that you’re one hundred.”
Lucas didn’t dare smile or pump a fist in triumph. “Deal.”
Archer went from looking pissy to mildly amused. “You don’t know what light duty I’m going to make you do yet.”
“Anything would be better than staying at home,” he said fervently.
“Glad to hear you say that.” Archer jabbed a thumb at the door. “Molly’s going to want to take those elves seriously. She’s been asking to take on a case for months now, but our cases have all been too risky.”
Lucas rubbed his side. Wasn’t that the damn truth. “And?”
“And your ‘light duty’ job is to make sure she turns those elves down,” Archer said. “She’s not ready yet.”
Joe nodded his agreement on that and Lucas let out a mirthless laugh. He understood why Molly’s boss might tell her not to take on a case, but her brother should know better. “Hello, you’ve met her, right?” Lucas asked them. “No one tells Molly what to do.”
“Improvise,” Archer said, unmoved. “And keep in mind, you’re still in hot water with me. So be careful.” He looked at Joe. “Give us a minute.”
Joe looked at Lucas and left the room.
“You’ve got something else to say?” Lucas asked Archer.
“Yeah. Don’t screw this up. And don’t sleep with her either.”
Granted, Lucas had never been all that discriminating when it came to the fairer sex, but this was Molly they were talking about. She was the baby sister of his friend and coworker, which meant she was not on his radar. At least not during the day.
The nights were something else altogether because there’d been more than a few times where she’d starred in his fantasies—his own deep, dark secret since he liked breathing. “I wouldn’t sleep with her.”
Archer looked behind him to make sure Joe had left. “Elle and I saw you at the pub last night, flirting with her.
This had Lucas’s full attention. “What?”
“Yeah, and what the hell were you thinking? You were lucky Joe was late.”
He’d flirted with Molly? Was he crazy? He’d long ago learned to ignore the undercurrent of electricity between them because he had zero interest in mixing business and pleasure, and even less interest in hurting her.
And he would eventually hurt her.
Not to mention what Joe would do to him after he did. And if Joe failed in this new mission, Archer would happily finish him off, and they’d both have every right. But Lucas wouldn’t go there, ever. His job had come between him and The One a few times now, so he’d shifted his priorities. He still loved women, just not one woman—and he was good with that and who he was.
Except . . . sometimes, like two weeks ago when he’d almost died on the job and had been forced off duty, he knew he was fooling himself. He’d been left feeling far more alone than he liked to admit. He looked at guys like Archer and Joe, both who’d managed to make love work for them just fine, and he wondered what the hell he was doing wrong.
Drawing a deep breath, he thought of the woman in his bed two flights up. Maybe for starters, he should try to remember the name of the women he’d just slept with. “Trust me,” he said. “Nothing happened with Molly last night.”
“No, really. Apparently, I was preoccupied with someone else.”
Archer went brows up. “The new brunette at the bar?” He then clapped Lucas on the shoulder. “Glad to hear you’re not going to have to die today.”
“Yeah, well, when Molly finds out you’ve put me on babysitting duty, she’s going to kill us both.”
“That’s why she’s not going to find out.”
Lucas stared at Archer, a very bad feeling coming over him. “I’m supposed to keep it from her?”
“Now you’re getting it.”
Lucas didn’t know much about Molly’s past other than something bad happened to her a long time ago and she still had a limp from whatever it’d been. Joe had kept a tight lid on his and Molly’s rough childhood. Both brother and sister had some serious trust issues. He shook his head glumly. “This is worse than monitor duty.”