THE PHONE PEALED and Addison’s hand reached out to hover above it. She said we shouldn’t answer on the first ring, lest we come off as desperate, so we held our breath and waited for the second ring. As soon as it started, she snatched up the receiver and held it to her ear.
She took a breath before answering, “Linda and Lynda Detective Agency.” Her voice sounded professional and inviting, as it should, since she’d been practicing for the past three days. I couldn’t blame her for her excitement, though. This could be it...the first assignment for our business.
Addison sighed and shook her head at me. “No, there is no John Watts here,” she said. “I don’t care if he gave you this number last night, this is our business line, and he’s not an employee. Stop calling this phone number!” She slammed down the receiver and put her head in her hands.
I did an Internet search for John Watts in the Portland, Oregon area, coming up with fifty-nine possible matches. “Maybe our first job should be finding this guy?” I suggested.
“Probably not a good idea,” Addison countered. “If I ever get my hands on him, I’ll show him debt collectors are the least of his problems.”
I understood exactly how Addison felt. We’d worked hard to get where we were, and every wrong-number phone call only pointed out the absence of real ones. And neither of us could understand why people weren’t calling. Our agency logo was etched into the glass on the door, we had cute business cards, matching cherry-wood desks, new phones, fast laptops, a kitchenette with an espresso machine and a mini-fridge, healthy plants, and even a cozy reception sofa.
Our office was immaculate, with high ceilings, custom crown molding, and floor-to-ceiling windows that gave us a much-coveted sixth-story view of downtown Portland. We’d each taken five hundred hours of pre-licensing education, paid the fees, passed the necessary exams, and had our valid investigator license. At Addison’s insistence, I’d even gotten my concealed carry permit, a holster, and a cute little Glock 19 Gen4, nine-mm Luger, which came standard with a fifteen-round magazine. Addison had offered to up the ammo to the seventeen- or thirty-three round magazine, but I reminded her I was a small town girl who’d been hunting since I could walk. If I couldn’t take out a threat with fifteen rounds, I deserved natural selection type consequences.
So...we had a gorgeous, well-positioned office and our state-mandated qualifications, but what we didn’t have, was clients. We’d been open for a total of three days, and had so far clocked twenty-four hours sitting on our asses in ergonomically-correct chairs. I’d checked local papers and Craigslist ads for potential clients so many times my laptop browser was suggesting dating sites. Feeling defeated, I closed my computer, laid my head on the desk, and stared at the phone, willing it to ring.
“Nobody’s gonna hire us,” Addison announced, voicing my worst fears. The wheels of her chair spun against the hardwood floors as she stood and walked to the window. “And I bet it’s Jake’s fault. He blackballed us. I know he did.”
I died a little inside, dreading yet another spiraling Jake conversation. Addison had a complicated relationship with a Portland police detective by the name of Jacob Rowe. Complicated because they were both bossy and stubborn, and nobody had told Jake the number one rule about being with Addison: don’t tell her she can’t do something.
Almost five months ago, Jake had come to Addison’s house to let me know I’d been exonerated for murder charges. I left him and Addison in a room together for five minutes. No joke, five minutes maximum. The next thing I knew she was beating on my door, all hopped up on righteous indignation and ranting incoherently. By the time I got her to sound a little less Tasmanian Devil and a little more like the beautiful, intelligent, charming heiress she is, we were dressed in business suits and sitting in an office, waiting our turn to make a deal with the real devil. Okay, not the real one, but for the record, Bruce Allen has been known to sprout horns on occasion.
Addison’s father steepled his hands, leaned back in his chair, and listened intently to her proposal before not so politely declining to take on the financial responsibility of two inexperienced private investigators. Addison has never been one to take no for an answer, and she dug her heels in, guilt-tripped, and threatened to blackmail her own father. Besides, technically, it was her money. She had received the next settlement from her trust fund on her twenty-fifth birthday, but it hadn’t funded yet. It wouldn’t for about a week and she wanted access to the money immediately. She was basically asking her dad for a bridge loan and I thought for sure he’d have security toss us out on our designer-suited rears, but instead, he conceded. And judging by the slight upturn of his mouth, I’m pretty sure he was proud of her. He made a phone call to move the money into her account while Addison and I headed out to begin the three-month process.
By the way, squeezing five hundred hours of education into less than five months sucks. But we did it. We even have the certificates on the wall to prove it.
“Well Jake can suck it, because this is gonna be the most successful detective agency in Portland. We’ll be solving so many crimes, the mayor will have to cut back the police force,” Addison seethed. “We just need to figure out a way to get our feet in the door. We need marketing and credibility. How can we get reviews and recommendations without solving a case?”
So far, the only case we’d solved was mine, and I didn’t think anyone would hire us based on a review from one of the investigators. Besides, I’d been shot and shot at, and Addison and I had both broken at least one law during my case. So if I was being honest, I couldn’t give us more than a solid C.
“Think.” She crossed her arms and leaned against the window. “There has to be something we can do.”
Addison wasn’t known for her patience, and this three-days-and-still-no-clients thing had to be eating her up inside. After my exciting case, she’d been expecting a life of mystery and intrigue, whereas I’d been dreading the likely possibility of more hospital visits and legal fees. Turns out neither of us were getting what we expected.
“I’ve gotta find a way to get Jake to ease up so we can get some clients,” Addison said.
This thing between her and Jake was starting to worry me. “Do you really think our lack of business is Jake’s fault?” I asked.
She nodded, still staring out the window.
Bracing myself for what proved to be an entertaining explanation, I asked, “How do you figure?”
She tore her gaze away from the window long enough to frown at me. “He’s well-connected and afraid for our safety. I bet he called everyone and told them not to hire us.”
“Everyone, huh?” I asked, hoping she’d come to her senses and hear how crazy that sounded.
Instead, she nodded.
Time for a different approach. “So you’re saying you think your busy detective boy toy dropped everything to go through the Portland phonebook, in order to block our business.”
Her chin rose. “Jake is resourceful and determined. I’m sure he thought of something.”
I made cuckoo bird noises, because it sounded nuts, but she did have a point. If Jake could possibly figure out a way to keep us safe, he would.
“Well, if it’s not my boy toy, it’s yours. Ashey’s probably up to something as well,” Addison announced.
The mention of Addison’s brother formed a lump in my throat. It had been three days since I’d heard from Asher, and I had no idea if our newly-forming relationship was going to survive our most recent fight. But I refused to give in, and I would not cry.
As if sensing my battle to keep it together, Addison turned and studied me, her expression softening. “Oh, Harley…”
“Don’t do that,” I warned. We were both hurting, and I didn’t want her sympathy. All I wanted was Asher’s support and to make this business a success so I could feel less like a loser sponging off my best friend, and more like a contributing member of society. So far I was zero for two.
She squared her shoulders and went back to the window. “Right. All the more reason we need to prove them wrong.”
Before I could comment further, the front door opened and Asher walked in wearing his normal workday tailored suit and oxfords. His hair was perfectly styled, and the sexy things his five o’clock shadow did to his face made me want to wrap myself around him. It had been four days since we’d gotten into the first official fight of our budding relationship, and although I missed him like crazy, I wasn’t ready to face him again.
“Ashey,” Addison said by way of greeting. She and Asher had always been pretty tight, but after his blatant lack of faith at our career path, she was almost as upset with him as I was.
Neither of us invited him in, but he stepped across the threshold and closed the door behind him, smirking. He held a brown paper bag in his hands that smelled faintly of teriyaki. “Addie. Harley.” His gaze swept over the office. “This place looks great.”
“Yep, Addie did a great job,” I said, popping my laptop back open like I had something important to do and wasn’t the least bit interested in his sexy self or the mouth-watering scents coming from his bag.
“You’re both still mad at me?” Asher asked, stopping between our desks.
Without taking my eyes off my screen, I replied, “You haven’t exactly been the supportive Asher Allen we both know and love.”
“It’s not his fault,” Addison said to me. “There’s clearly something in the water turning our men into overprotective assholes.” She glared at her brother, and then went back to staring out the window.
Asher chuckled. “Okay, I probably deserved that.”
Addison huffed. Then her entire body tensed and she reached for her jacket. “He’s here.”
“Jake?” I asked.
“Yeah. He’s taking me to lunch. And I swear if he tries to talk “sense” into me one more time, I’m gonna make him eat his badge.”
“I’d like to see that,” Asher said.
She glared at him again. “I’m gonna meet him at the elevator. I don’t want him bringing his negativity into our office. Harley, be strong while I’m gone. Don’t give in to the charming wiles of this one. Solidarity.”
“Love you too, Sis,” Asher replied.
She blew us a kiss and stepped out of the office. The door closed behind her, and her heels tapped on the wood floor, heading toward the elevator. Awkward silence filled the room as I tried desperately to find something resembling work to do on my laptop.
“I brought you lunch,” Asher said, setting the bag on my desk. “Bento from one of the food carts. I don’t know how good it is, but the guy barely spoke English, so that’s a good sign, right?”
My stomach growled in response. “You brought me roach coach food?” I asked. Portland had some of the best food cart eats on the planet, but Addison refused to put anything in her body that came from the mobile kitchens she not-so-lovingly referred to as roach coaches, and I rarely ventured out to them alone.
Instead of answering me, he picked up the bag and headed toward the reception sofa, where he unloaded containers of food onto the coffee table. Each one smelled better than the last, making it impossible to focus on my laptop.
“I didn’t know what you’d want, so I got beef, chicken, vegetables, rice…” He added a little container to the stack. “And extra sauce.”
There was still an unmended bridge between us, but I had to hand it to the guy…he was trying. And I was hungry. While he laid out paper plates and plastic silverware I swallowed back my pride and stood. He patted the couch, inviting me to sit beside him.
I wanted to, but first I needed to make sure my having lunch with him wouldn’t be seen as submitting to his ridiculous insistence that Addison and I give up on our career. “What’s all this?” I asked.
Asher frowned. “Bento. From one of the food carts—”
“No, I mean I haven’t heard from you for four days, and then you show up with lunch? What’s going on?”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m an Allen, and despite the deep disappointment such actions would bring upon my family, I’m trying to apologize. Will you please come sit by me?”
Fighting a smile, I joined him on the sofa and he scooted closer to me until our knees were touching. Warmth spread up my leg from the contact. He took my hand in his and gave it a little tug. Wondering what he was up to, I looked into his eyes.
“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking over the past few days,” he started. “Your case was pretty rough on me. Knowing you had to spend a couple nights in jail was one thing, but seeing you in that hospital bed…twice…” He shook his head. “That was brutal.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but held up a hand.
“Let me finish. I know you and Addie have worked really hard to get where you are. I realize you’re both intelligent, capable women who often surprise those of us who foolishly underestimate you. And I’m sorry for being such a douchebag.”
I couldn’t help but smile.
He squeezed my hand. “But I can’t turn off this thing inside me that wants to protect and take care of you, so I’ve been racking my brain and searching for ways for your business to succeed without putting your lives in danger. Being a criminal defense attorney, I sometimes need the services of private investigators, but they’re throwing some pretty high profile cases at me, and I…I can’t.”
Again, I started to argue and he cut me off.
“Some of the criminals they have me working with wouldn’t hesitate to harm anyone caught snooping in their business. I know it’s not fair or right, but if I sent you two on a case and you got hurt, I’d never forgive myself. I’m just being honest here. But I do have another option…a friend from law school who recently started his own practice, and he’s looking for a PI. It wouldn’t be anything glamorous. You’d probably spend most of your time hiding out and snapping photos of people cheating on their spouses. But it would be a good way to get your foot in the door and build references.”
I could barely believe my ears. Asher…my sexy, funny, sweet, loving, protective Asher…was putting his reputation on the line because he believed in us. A lump formed in my throat.
Clearly mistaking my inability to speak, he hurried on, “Not glamorous, but you would be catching cheaters, which would give new purpose to Addison’s life.”
It was no secret how much my bestie despised people who felt the need to cheat on their significant others. She’d probably shoot them if it wasn’t illegal.
“So, I didn’t know if you guys would be interested, but my friend’s name is Ethan Sinclair. I gave him your office number and he plans to call later this week.”
Even though Asher was concerned about our safety, he did believe in us. And he wanted to help. My eyes stung, burning away all the worry and frustration I’d felt over the past months. Addison was right, we could do this, and I wouldn’t even lose Asher in the process. I threw my arms around his neck and squeezed him close.
“Thank you Ash. You have no idea how much this means to me. How much it means to both of us. Addie is gonna be over the moon.”
He chuckled, the sound rumbling his chest that was still pressed against my own. “I know. I’m pretty much the best brother and boyfriend ever.”
Boyfriend. It was the first time either of us had put a title on our relationship. I leaned back so I could study his expression and make sure he wasn’t messing with me. The sincerity in his eyes did crazy things to my stomach. “Boyfriend, huh?”
In answer, he closed what little distance there was between us, kissing me senseless. I was practically on top of him when the door opened. I jumped away from Asher and straightened my top as Addison walked in, mumbling something about Jake getting called away for work. Then she froze, looked from us to the uneaten food on the table, and glared at me.
“I told you not to cave!” she said.
“Relax, Sis,” Asher said, reaching for my hand again. “I was simply telling Harley about the referral I just gave you.”
Addison’s eyes lit up. “Referral?”
I giggled, unable to control my giddiness. “Yep. I hope you’ve got a good camera, Addie, because we’re gonna go nail some cheaters.”