The handsome man was back at Perk; Kate saw him in the window table, his chiseled jaw and dark hair commanding the attention of every nearby woman. She stopped on the sidewalk for a minute to stare while she adjusted her jacket. He had a steaming cup of coffee but he was immersed in his laptop, his eyes busy scanning. She wanted to know what color they were.
Cool air whipped her hair behind her head and played havoc with her skirt, one minute pasting it to her body in a tight embrace, the next tossing it up her thighs. Kate wrestled with the billowing fabric, her cheeks turning pink as a construction worker in a coned-off rubble patch whistled, a long shrill call. His friend laughed and their voices disappeared into the static crash of the jackhammer, their focus returned to work. She wondered if they ever made a mistake and jackhammered their feet. Did a steel-toe boot prevent toe-capitation in such a case? Not that she wished such a thing, but reporters were always curious.
As she entered the coffee shop and heard the clang of the old cowbell above the door, Handsome Guy didn’t look up. Now from this man, she’d welcome attention. She’d been so busy this week that she’d skipped her favorite morning coffee routine, and was irrationally excited that he was here again—a new face in the neighborhood café. She’d been single far too long, buried in work, lost in the lure of a good story. The sight of his broad shoulders and strong jaw made her heart pound with an excitement she hadn’t felt in months.
“Katie Bean! Missed you the past few days.” Lila pushed back her purple bangs. “Usual coffee?” She waved from behind the counter and pointed a temp worker to something on a low shelf.
“Yes.” Kate shrugged off her jacket and placed it on the table across the aisle from Hot Guy, noting his sexy forearms, strong, the sleeves partly rolled up. She approached the counter. “Do you have those Mexican sweet rolls today?” Pushing her auburn curls out of her face, she checked the glassed-in display of pastries. Her green eyes looked back at her, a pale wavering reflection; further back, there was the man with thick brown hair, and behind him, nearly lost in infinite refractions of light and flare, the world outside.
“Nope. All gone. But I have an awesome Greek baklava thing from Zorba’s, my Friday special. If you buy one, you get a 50% off an entrée coupon. Want to try?”
“No, thanks. Those are too sweet for me.” Kate accepted her latte, eyeing the sky outside. “I think it’s going to rain.” She was supposed to meet Ella later at the abandoned park out in Glendale Heights to get more data from the Mancini water plant’s engineering room. Ella had promised her something big, and then turned elusive. Kate understood; whistleblowing was a dangerous proposition. But in the beginning, Ella was so fervent, so full of righteous anger, so indignant. Now she seemed timid, her eyes darting around each time they met. Something weird was going on, and if Kate didn’t meet with Ella today, she worried the woman would dissolve like salt into water and never talk to her again.
“Storm, more likely.” Lila peered up at the sky. “See that flat cloud and the round one? When they push together like that, I’m almost sure it means a tornado is approaching and the world will explode.”
“Thank you, Weather Woman Lila. When are you going to be on the six o’clock news?”
“Uh, never, unless it’s doing an infomercial for my shop. I just happen to be multi-talented.”
“Well, can you make those clouds disappear?” Kate tapped her fingers on the countertop. “I have to meet someone today and I’d rather do it without a flood.”
“Flood is right.” Lila turned to do something with frothy milk for another customer. “The Manitoc is probably going to overflow if we get as much rain as they’re predicting. Stupid town council never votes on replacing that old bridge. Better stock up on Oreos and toilet paper in case you’re stuck inside for a few days.”
“Stuck inside?” Kate’s heart dropped. “No. I’m not going to accept that.” She tapped one sandal on the worn wooden planks. “Look, I even dressed for the sun. See?”
“Fine. But I encourage you to hold an umbrella while you act all Weather Denier.” Lila laughed. “Just Skype your contact. Can’t you reporters do things online like the rest of the world?”
“Not this one. We have to meet in person.” Her voice carried across the room.
The man looked up and met her eyes. They were a deep blue, and the intensity made her catch her breath. Holy hell, he was hot! He scowled and looked back at his laptop. Okay. Whatever. She blew out her breath and wrinkled her nose, then lowered her voice. “Who’s the guy by the window? Do you know him?”
Lila leaned forward, her earrings brushing her cheeks, black eyes flashing. “He comes in every day right before your usual time, and takes that table. Watches out the window sometimes, mostly works. Never talks to anyone. Except me. When I bring him refills.” She grinned. “But not that much. Said his name is Sloan.”
“He just frowned at me.”
“Oh, poor baby.” Lila patted her hand. “And you in such a sexy little outfit, too. Those legs, girl! His loss.”
“Yeah.” Kate snuck another look at him. God, she couldn’t stop staring.
“Here, have a cupcake on me to make up for your broken heart.” Lila took a fluffy confection from behind the shiny glass and slid it onto a white plate. “You can have a sugar orgasm, since the other kind is apparently off the table.”
“Your generosity is overwhelming.” Kate fished a ten-dollar bill from her purse and tossed it onto the counter. “I don’t take charity.” Images filled her mind: The table. He backed her up to a table, bent her down onto it, pushing her hands above her head; his lips meeting hers—
“It’s not charity, it’s empathy.” Lila pushed the bill back. “And you can be my taste tester. These are from Chooch’s bakery. If they’re good enough, I’ll stock them every morning.”
“Done. Can I have a side of bacon with it? Since I’m not getting the meat elsewhere, either.”
Lila laughed. “But of course. Hey, you going to visit your mom this weekend like you were thinking?”
Kate nodded. “I want to surprise her—she’s been after me to come home, and I miss her and Peter. With that break from work coming up, I can stay the whole week, even.”
“Tell her I say hi.” Lila smiled. “And also, bring back some of those pastry things from the Danish bakery. God, those are good. I’d be willing to move there for those things. Yum.”
“No problem.” Kate stuffed the bill into the tiny pocket of her jacket, looking out at the sky, and her thoughts drifted to Ella. Snippets flew through her mind: Meeting Ella’s grandson, Eli; trying not to wince at his slack jaw and vacant expression. The pain in Ella’s face when she showed videos on her phone of Eli earlier, before the seizure—a joyful, bubbly toddler. The grave where Eli’s mother was buried. The mounting medical bills.
No, she needed to get Ella to give her the rest of that data—together, they were going to take Carlo Mancini down, all the way down to hell, where he deserved to rot for eternity. What kind of a person kept running a water plant, knowing full well the water was contaminated? And what was wrong with the mayor’s office, who said there was nothing to investigate, even when independent tests showed significant amounts of lead and carcinogens?
“Line’s starting up. I gotta jet.” Lila turned to the next person waiting. “Monica! Double-espresso with sugar? Did you get your car back from the shop?”
Turning to her table, Kate arranged her plate and coffee, darting little glances at the man—Sloan. His hands were strong and well formed, with neatly trimmed nails. Broad palms. His profile was breathtaking, and there was a hint of dark stubble on his jaw. She could almost smell him. She imagined that he’d have an aroma of fresh dryer sheets, cologne, and some indescribable masculine essence. She leaned to the side in her chair, dying to find out, then righted herself, flushing.
Still, she shot glances his way. He was a magnet, with powerful draw. God, she hadn’t been this instantly attracted to someone in a long time. She wanted to walk over and lean over his shoulder, rest her lips on his neck, and push her breasts into his back. She wanted to see him smile at her, a lazy dangerous smile, then take charge and pull her head down to his for a kiss, both hands on her face—strong and demanding, while he teased her with his tongue. She wanted those blue eyes burning into hers. She wanted to run her hands through that hair, yank him in, make him raise an eyebrow and stand up and crush her to his chest, one hand cupping her ass, the other on her—
He looked over, startling her. His eyes were even more gorgeous trained on hers. Then he smiled and she had to force herself back to Earth before smiling back—God. Did he feel it, too? Was that look on his face attraction or just someone noticing a gawker? He nodded and looked back to his computer, and she felt hot and confused, dizzy.
He was probably just being friendly.
Six minutes after seven. Still almost an hour until she had to meet Ella. She pulled up her spreadsheet and frowned. The most recent batch of data from Ella was perplexing. It showed that all of the lead measurements were within spec limits, with the tightest standard deviation she’d ever seen, almost perfect. Zero lead, pretty much, at least according to the factory records of their own hourly test results. She didn’t understand. Water tests all over town had shown that lead was off-the-charts high in this exact time frame. And the previous data from Ella had shown levels in the hundreds inside the plant.
She needed to talk to Ella, find out more about where and how she’d gotten this information, and whether anything weird or unusual had happened in the factory. It didn’t seem, from the internal memos and reports Ella had stolen, that any upgrades or filter replacements had been done to account for the miraculously clean data. Ella was a technician, and in her twenty years at the company she’d earned the trust of the engineering team, who often had her into the control room to work on projects. Ella had the pulse of the plant.
The man was doing something with a spreadsheet, too. She imagined leaning over and letting her hair brush his neck, whispering, “Hey, sexy, can you help me out with a little six and nine?”
God. Stop. She banged her coffee cup down harder than necessary, spilling a little onto her hand. Hot. “Shit.” There were no napkins on her table. Of course. The time when she needed them, of course there wouldn’t be—
“Here.” The man stood up and handed her a pile of paper napkins. “Looks like you need these more than I do.”
She smiled and caught her breath as their fingertips touched. “Thank you.”
He came closer and folded his arms over his chest as she scrubbed at the puddle. “Financial analyst?”
“What?” She stepped to the side to toss the sopping napkins into the trashcan, then pushed down her laptop lid. “I’m a journalist.”
“I don’t meet a lot of journalists who work with SAS on a regular basis.”
“You recognized the program?”
He smiled. “Yes.”
She swallowed. “I’m better in Excel. I need a tutor.” She flushed, thinking of her earlier daydream.
He regarded her without blinking. “You be careful.” His voice held a note of command.
“What?” She bit her lip, almost looking around her for some kind of lurking danger. God. Ella’s jitters were rubbing off on her. “It’s just math.” She tried to smile.
“You don’t want to get burned, right?” He gestured at the coffee, but his eyes were trained on hers.
“No, I don’t.” Her voice came out low. His gaze was mesmerizing. She stuck out her hand, unable to resist. “I’m Kate.”
“Sloan.” His hand was warm and firm, and she liked the feel of his fingers on hers. For a second, as their eyes locked, she almost thought he was going to kiss her. The way he leaned in, the way his grip tightened, the way his lashes fluttered, his gaze intense—but then he took his hand back and the moment was gone.
“So, Sloan, since we already covered the fact that I’m a statistics-impaired reporter, what’s your story?”
A look passed over his face like a cloud, something of regret and frustration, but then he smiled again. “I’m in finance. Math-inspired.”
“They do say opposites attract.” Kate didn’t know what had gotten into her; all she knew was that this man was pushing buttons in her psyche, sending all kinds of messages rocketing around her brain.
“Don’t trust everything people tell you.” His gaze was implacable.
Kate wrinkled her brow. “Thanks, but that’s covered in Reporting School 101 along with things like, Did You Try Plugging It In?”
He laughed. “Touché. How about this one: Do you come here often?”
“Almost every day.” Kate waved at the counter. “Lila’s my best friend, and the coffee here is my second best friend. I like to get breakfast here before work.”
“What are you working on right now?” His eyes were sharp, and he glanced at her laptop.
She shrugged. “This and that. I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” She laughed, but he didn’t; if anything, his expression grew more serious, and the moment turned awkward. “Um.”
His phone trilled with a text; he looked at it and his face shuttered. “I’d better get back to work.” He glanced at his computer screen. “It was nice meeting you. I’m sure we’ll see each other again.” As he looked at her, a shadow passed over his face, almost a look of regret.
“Me too. Actually, I have to get going.” Kate glanced at her watch. Talk about mixed signals! It would be awkward to sit here after this exchange; she’d never be able to focus. She’d work in her car for half an hour and then head for the park to meet Ella. “Until next time.”
“Yeah.” Sloan met her eyes again, and she swore there was a spark there, a glimmer of interest, a ravenous need hidden behind that odd expression. But he just turned back to his table, so she shrugged.
Can’t win them all, she muttered, giving Lila a wave as she headed out to her sturdy Camry down the sidewalk. The wind picked up in intensity, and the workmen—busy packing away equipment, talking into their walkies—gave her no notice, even though her skirt fluttered like a wild animal against her legs. A few sharp cold drops of rain hit her like bb pellets, and she flinched. Please, please, she begged the sky. Hold out so Ella doesn’t bail. I need her to meet me.