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Merry and Bright, Page 2

Jill Shalvis

  “Run into drywall?”

  “Run into stuff, period.” Someone had opened a window, and the evening breeze came in, as well as the sounds from the street six floors below. Traffic, an airplane, a sudden blare of a horn so loud she jumped.

  “Just a car,” he said.

  “In the tone of an F.”

  “Excuse me?”

  “All car horns are in the chord of F.”

  He did that eyebrow arch thing again.

  “Jesus, Mags. Stop talking!” Janie demanded in her ear.

  “Okay, I’ve really got to go.”

  “Wait!” Janie yelled. “Ask him out first, you promised! You have to do him, and get him to do you—”

  Maggie slapped her phone shut before Jacob could hear her crazy sister. Yes, he was Mr. Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. But what was she supposed to do, say Hey, how do you feel about me jumping your bones? Probably she should start with a dinner invite and work her way up to the jumping bones part. Yeah, that was it, that was how normal women did these things. Okay. She took both a big breath and a small step backward for distance, but Jacob curled his fingers into the front of her jacket and caught her up against him.

  Not that she was complaining, but... “Um—”

  He gestured to the bucket of nails she’d nearly stepped in, and she winced. His body, plastered to hers, was as hard as it appeared. And warm. Very, very warm. “Thanks.”

  “Maybe you should just stand real still,” he suggested, and let go of her.

  “Yes, except I don’t stand still very well. I only do still when I’m lying down.”

  He arched a brow, those deep chocolate brown eyes lighting up with amusement to go with the heat still there, making her realize the double entendre she’d just said. “You know what I mean.”

  He just smiled, and turned his head toward a crew member who came up to him with a McDonald’s bag.

  “Burgers on the run.” Jacob took the food. “Thanks.”

  Maggie’s mouth once again ran away from her brain. “There’re one hundred seventy-eight sesame seeds on each of those hamburger buns.”

  He leaned back against the wall, all casual like, in direct contrast to her uptightness. “One hundred seventy-eight, huh?” He was clearly biting back a smile. “Exactly?”

  “Or thereabouts,” she muttered, wondering how it was she could be so smart and yet not be able to keep her mouth shut.

  “So you graduated early to become a sesame seed counter?”

  “No.” She laughed. “No. I’m sort of a chemist.”

  “How does one become a sort of chemist?”

  Yeah, still amusing him. Terrific. Just what she wanted to do, amuse the gorgeous man, at her own expense. “Okay, it’s not sort of. It’s really. I’m really a chemist.” Wow, so much better. Now all she had to do to complete her humiliation was ask him out. No sweat. “So—”

  But he pushed away from the wall, calling out to one of his workers. “Dave, not there, over a foot! Check the specs!” He glanced back at Maggie. “Do me a favor and watch where you walk in here tonight.”

  Yes, she’d just watch where she was going, she thought with a sigh as he walked away. That was her. Always watching. Never doing. She opened Tim’s office door. “Your car’s in my way.”

  He looked up with concern. “You didn’t bump it?”

  “No, of course not.”

  He rushed off to check on his precious baby, and Maggie followed at a slower pace, calling back her sister as she went. “He walked away from me.”

  “Who, your Mr. Wrong? Did you ask him out?”

  “No, I ran out of words.”

  “You tell him that car horns are in the chord of F and you can’t find the words to ask him out? God, you need help.”

  “I know!”


  When the alarm went off well before dawn, Jacob groaned, squelched the urge to toss the thing out his window, and rolled out of bed. He strode naked to the shower, which he cranked up to scalding.

  This eighty-hour workweek shit had to stop.

  After pulling on his last set of clean clothes—damn, he really needed a night at home to catch up—he headed to work, already on his cell phone with his crew, who wanted to get this job finished as badly as he did. He wanted to fly to New Orleans as scheduled in two days, hang out with his family, and possibly do the stacked blonde his brother had set him up with for New Year’s Eve.

  Simple needs, really. Except there was a glitch. Christ, he hated glitches, and he had the mother of all glitches staring him in the face. He had to finish this job before anyone could leave. He’d signed a contract with Data Tech and he had two days left on that contract. Two days or he’d lose his ten percent bonus—only thanks to delay after delay, they had at least a week’s worth of work still to be done in that two days.

  Not good odds, but then again, he’d faced worse. Much worse.

  He left his house, skirted the jammed L.A. freeways like a pro, and was on the job before the sun had even thought about coming up. And since he had a kick-ass crew, they’d joined him without complaint.

  Okay, there was complaining, but they all wanted that ten percent bonus as badly as he did, so they bitched and worked at the same time. After they finished this building, they were jumping right into another job on Fourth Street. Business was good. Actually, business was great.

  So why he felt so damn restless, he really had no idea. Maybe the trip would help. He could see his mom and sister, and make sure they were doing okay in their new place. He could see his brother and catch up.

  And get laid.

  Yeah. All systems go on that one. After moving to New Orleans in his senior year of high school, he’d come back out to Los Angeles five years ago with his best friend and partner, Sam. They’d started out in the hole, practically having to beg, borrow, and steal jobs, but they’d managed. And then they’d gotten their first big contract, and that had led to two more, and they’d been on their way.

  Then Sam had gone home for his brother’s birthday and had gotten killed in Katrina, and things hadn’t been the same for Jacob since. He’d been left with five large contracts already signed, when all he’d wanted to do was go home and wallow. In hindsight, those jobs had probably saved his sorry ass. Even if this one just might kill him. But he wanted that damn bonus. It’d help both his mother and sister pay off the mortgages on homes that no longer even existed, and it would ease their tight financial situation.

  He was busy laying out some electrical lines when he heard the click click clicking of heels and knew it was 8:03 exactly, because at 8:03 every single morning, she appeared. Maggie Bell, his new favorite “sort of” chemist with the encyclopedia brain filled with odd facts.

  She’d grown up. Filled out. And looked damn good. She wore black pumps today, her long legs covered in sheer silk, a business skirt and blouse, and since it was December and chilly, an overcoat, open and flapping behind her as she rushed along, working her cell phone, sipping her caffeine, and balancing a briefcase. She looked a little bit harried, a little bit late, and in spite of the fact that she screamed class, also just a little bit messy.

  God, he loved that part. He had a feeling if the right guy came along and took that pen out from behind her ear, then slid his fingers into her hair and kissed her long and hard and wet, she’d melt. That fantasy alone had gotten him through the past two months.

  As he did every single morning, he stopped whatever he was doing to watch. She didn’t disappoint. Today her honey-colored hair was piled on top of her head in what looked to be a precarious hold. She didn’t wear much makeup that he could tell, but her lips were glossed. Her eyes were covered by reflective sunglasses but he knew them to be a light blue, and that in five seconds they’d focus in on him and she’d stumble just a little. Then her mouth would tremble open in a perfect little O, and time would stop, just literally stop.

  And then she’d blink. Her eyes would cool, as if she’d just remembered that they were virtual str
angers. She’d pretend to be occupied by something in her hands and rush into her lab, not to be seen again until at least six—

  Ah, there it was. She glanced up, saw him only a few yards away with the electrical wiring in his hands. She came to an abrupt halt, prompting two of his guys behind her to nearly plow into her.

  Her mouth opened and apologies tumbled out from everyone, and then his guys made their way around her and she gripped her things, once again turning her head in his direction, this time with a hint of pink in her cheeks.

  He lifted his hand and waggled his fingers.

  Her mouth curved in a self-deprecatory smile. “Whoops.” Her voice was soft and musical, and if he’d let it, it would have gone straight to his head. And other places.

  In high school, she’d been the quietest little thing. He remembered sitting near her, watching her absorb school in a way he’d never quite managed. He’d actually wished he could be more like her. She’d helped him out, and he’d been grateful, but she’d been too shy to get to know, not to mention far too young. And then he’d moved and had never seen her again.

  He was seeing her now—warm eyes, sweet smile, and a body made for sin. Not too young now, was she . . . ?

  Scott West came out of the elevator, dressed like a man who didn’t have to worry about any ten-percent potential profit loss. “Hey, Maggie,” he said. “Jacob.”

  Scott had been a tough-ass at the negotiating table, but was looking much softer now that he was taking in Maggie’s sweet morning appearance. “So what’s today’s fact?” he asked her, flashing a set of perfect teeth.

  “Odontophobia,” she said, staring at his extremely white teeth. “The fear of teeth. Point one percent of the population suffers from it.”

  Scott laughed and shook his head. “Good one. So . . . about that vial Tim gave you—”

  “Oh! I tried it last night. The secret ingredient . . . it’s sweet almond oil, right? For that extra vitamin E? It’s a little too thick now but I’ll—”

  “No, no, don’t worry about it. I’ll have Tim rework it.” He held out his hand, presumably for said vial, but she shook her head.

  “It’s at my condo, sorry.”

  “Gotcha. Well . . .” He opened his office door with a smile not quite the same wattage as before. “See you at the staff meeting.”

  Maggie turned back to Jacob, but stopped short when her cell phone rang. With a look of apology, she opened her bag and pulled it out to answer it. Immediately a frown crossed her brow, and she forgot about him, he could tell. She was on the move again, talking, gesturing with her full hands, not watching where she was going as she headed beneath his scaffolding to enter her lab, just barely ducking as two men from his crew moved a heavy piece of equipment in front of her.

  The woman was a walking/talking accident just waiting to happen. The cutest, sexiest, walking/talking accident he’d ever seen.

  Maggie spent the entire morning hunched over her laptop, going over lab results, ignoring a flood of pesky texts from a nosy-body Janie.

  Alice showed up at noon with lunch. “Men suck,” she said, handing a wrapped sandwich to Maggie. “And I think the bottle for your cream should be blue.”

  Alice was twenty-two, an intern on loan from UCLA to do Data Tech’s filing, but she’d latched onto Maggie because she wanted to be a scientist, too. Dressed like a Goth superhero, all in black and lace, with some interesting deep purple lipstick, she sighed glumly as she sat and opened her sandwich. “I think my boyfriend is cheating on me with his lab partner.”

  “Oh, Alice. I’m sorry.”

  “Yeah.” Alice usually wore an expression of general angry-at-the-world emo-ism. But today there was something new, hurt. “Me, too. But definitely blue glass. For your cream. My grandmother loves blue glass.”

  Talking with Alice made her dizzy. “I’m aiming for a younger crowd here.”

  “Hey, my grandmother is a tough chick. She rides with the Hells Angels, and is armed to the teeth at all times. And isn’t it a wrinkle cream?”

  Maggie looked into Alice’s face, which was gorgeous, smooth, and covered in pale, pale foundation. “Yes, I’ve made several wrinkle creams. But I’m also working on a drug delivery system. And trust me, you’re only a few years away from your first wrinkle.”

  “I am not. I don’t allow my skin to touch the sun. Haven’t you heard? Goth is the new tan.” She took a big bite of her PB&J. “The drug delivery system thing is cool. I should start reading the reports I’m filing for you guys.”

  Scott poked his head in the lab, his gaze passing over Alice to meet Maggie’s. “Lunch?”

  Maggie had been waiting so long to have him ask her out again it almost seemed surreal. She was crazy not to jump up and say “yes!” but the fact was, Scott was a Mr. Right and she’d given up Mr. Rights. Thanks to Janie, she was going to go for her Mr. Wrong.

  Soon as she figured out exactly how to do that. She held up her half-eaten sandwich. “Sorry, I’m almost done.”

  He nodded, nonchalantly looking around her lab, as if not sure what to do with himself. “Well, okay then. See you later.”

  When he was gone, Alice looked at Maggie. “He wants into your pants.”

  “Because he offered me lunch?”

  “Yeah, I think you should go for it. He’s rich and he’s hot. And rich. Which always trumps hot. My boyfriend’s rich. Or his family is.” Some of her perpetual anger made room for that hurt again. “Unfortunately he’s also a dick.”

  Maggie squeezed her hand in sympathy. “Neither hot nor rich are important criteria for me.”

  Alice seemed baffled by this. “What’s more important than rich?”

  Maggie sighed. “Scott’s my type.”

  “The bastard.”

  “No, I mean . . . I’m trying a new thing. I’m going for the opposite of my type. I’m going for Mr. Wrong.”

  Alice put down her sandwich. “Okay, this is interesting. Go on.”

  “It’s my sister’s idea. She made me promise that my Christmas present to her would be me ignoring all the Mr. Rights and going for Mr. Wrong.”

  “So have you found him yet?”

  Maggie hesitated, and Alice pounced with glee. “You have, haven’t you?” She grinned. “Who is he, that geek in accounting—what’s his name, the one who actually carries pencils and pens and a calculator in his shirt pocket?”

  “Alan, and he’s a great guy, but no. He’s not a Mr. Wrong, he’s . . .” Her own type. The overeducated thinker, nice but distracted, and to be honest, a little aloof. She wanted passion, she wanted aggression, she wanted . . . wild sex.

  Oh, God, it was true. She wanted wild sex from her Mr. Wrong. “I’m not really ready to share.”

  Alice sighed and packed up the trash from lunch. “Fine. It’s none of my business and it’s going to end badly anyway, these things always do.”


  “I have to go. It’s time to get filing. Hey, maybe I’ll learn something.”

  Maggie got back to work. At the end of the day, she closed up and left her lab. The place was completely void of Data Tech employees, which was typical of Christmas week. Everyone wanted to rush home to their families.

  Their significant others.

  She sighed again and kept walking, trying not to notice the boughs of holly, the lights . . . the noise of the construction workers. Two of them were mumbling about the long night ahead and their looming deadline, and she wondered if their boss was still in the building. Maybe like her boss, Jacob had deserted his workers. Maybe he was home drinking eggnog with his friends, enjoying the holiday; maybe he was on a date, which for some reason tightened a knot in her gut and made her head hurt. She rubbed her forehead and—

  And tripped over an open toolbox, hitting the floor on all fours. Her briefcase went flying, and the pen she’d forgotten she had behind her ear skittered across the floor. “Dammit.”

  “So much for watching where you’re going.”

ng this most annoying statement, two big, warm hands gripped her waist and hoisted her up. When she tilted her head back, her gaze collided with a set of dark brown eyes. Terrific. Now he showed up. She bent to look at her burning knees, which were both skinned good and already starting to bleed. “Dammit.”

  “You said that.” Jacob crouched down, seeming big and bad and just a little irritated. He had drywall dust and sawdust all over him, and was hot and sweaty, and clearly not exactly thrilled at the interruption. He picked up all her things, easily tucking them beneath one arm. “Shit, you’re bleeding,” he said, looking at the trickle running down her calf. “Tommy, bring me a clean rag!”

  “It’s okay.” She sucked in a painful breath. Liar, liar...

  But she smiled into his solemn eyes as her heart kicked hard. “The human heart can create enough pressure to squirt blood thirty feet, so this is nothing, relatively speaking.” Even if her knees were on fire . . . “I’m fine,” she said, and stood up.

  He straightened, too, and she suddenly became aware of exactly how close they were. Inches apart, which was waaaay closer than they’d ever been. Someone, presumably Tommy, tossed him a rag, which he caught over her head and handed to her.

  “Thanks.” She hadn’t skinned her knees in years and she didn’t remember it hurting this bad. She dabbed at her knees and hissed out a breath. “You don’t by any chance have a Band-Aid? Or two?”

  “Sure do.” He led her down the hall, past the elevators. The building was in a U-shape, curved around a courtyard six stories below. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched him walk, his broad shoulders stretching the seams of his shirt, his Levi’s lovingly cupping a most drool-worthy butt.

  Odd to be so attracted to a Mr. Wrong, but her body was humming again in spite of her knees. He hadn’t gotten himself a haircut, and the dark strands of his hair looked soft and silky. He hadn’t shaved that morning, and maybe not yesterday morning either, and that growth didn’t look soft and silky at all. It would be rough against her skin, which for some reason, gave her a little shiver. “I was wondering . . .” If I could ask you to do me.