The London office of Benson Security
Not so very long before the start of Run, Benson Security 6
Elle Roberts loved Monday mornings, because that was when the team meeting took place. And seeing as her job was becoming increasingly mundane, she’d take all the highlights she could get.
“I’m telling you,” Ryan Granger said around a mouthful of danish pastry, “we need to go to this place for lunch. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet. For ten pounds!”
A UK Army veteran, Ryan had one overriding interest outside of his job—food. And it was going to get him killed if he kept being so bloody cheap about it.
“It’s hard to find a coffee in central London for under ten pounds, and you want us to believe that this buffet of yours can feed you for that?” Elle held up her reusable coffee beaker and pointed at the photo of Darth Vader in a pink tutu emblazoned on it. “Filling this baby cost nearly that much.”
“You’re not listening to me.” Ryan gazed earnestly around the boardroom table, where everyone was grinning at him. “This restaurant is a hidden gem. It’s got everything on the menu—from Italian to Chinese. The only reason it isn’t charging more is that it’s up an alley, so the tourists can’t find it.”
“Or,” Joe Barone drawled in his American accent, “they make their money selling drugs out of the kitchen, and the food is just for show. As an Italian American, I can tell you for a fact, never trust a kitchen that does Italian and any other cuisine. A true Italian sticks to what they know best.”
A former Marine, Joe was now head of their training division. Which, as far as Elle could tell, meant endless hand-to-hand combat drills and lectures about operation procedure.
As Elle listened to her team try to talk Ryan out of eating his way into a coma, her mind turn to the man who haunted her dreams. She put her coffee cup down beside her ever-present laptop and brought up the chatroom she monitored 24/7, just in case the mysterious David made an appearance. She was pretty sure he used that room to set up jobs. Mercenary-type jobs. And that’d confused her until she realized it was probably his cover profession because she was certain he worked for one of the big intelligence agencies. She just hadn’t managed to find out which one…yet.
No sign of him in the chatroom. In fact, there hadn’t been any sign of him in a while. She wasn’t sure if that made her feel worried or neglected. With a wicked little smile, she decided it was time to prod the bear again, so she typed a message:
Blue girl still seeking partner in crime. Fluffy pink handcuffs included. Time to hand over your contact deets. Don’t you want to get together?
It sounded like a badly written sex ad, but she hit enter and left it anyway. Later, she’d have to wade through all the inappropriate replies, but if she was lucky, it would shake David’s tree enough to make him come looking for her again. Even if it was just to tell her off.
“You’re looking for your spy again.” Megan called her out.
“No, I’m not.” Elle shut her laptop.
“Yeah, you are.” Ryan spoke between pastries. “You get a goofy look on your face when you’re thinking about him. And you’re grinning at your screen, which means you’re doing something dumb to wind him up. Again.”
“That’s pure rubbish,” she told him. And, frankly, insulting. Her expression was ninja blank. She knew because she’d practiced it in the mirror.
“He’s right. Your guilt is written all over your face,” Dimitri said, and the rest of the team nodded. “What are you doing anyway? That man told you to stop looking for him. And you told all of us that you’d given up on him. Are you being naughty again?”
“You’re all imagining things. Plus, not that I am looking for him, but I’m fairly certain he only warned me off to drive me nuts. I don’t think he was serious.”
“Oh, she’s totally lying.” Megan pointed a finger at her. “She’s still hunting David.”
“I am not!” Elle crossed her fingers under the table. “I have better things to do with my time than search for a moody spy.” Liar, liar, pants on fire…
“Elle…” Joe was using his “teacher” voice, which meant a lecture was coming her way, and she had to cut it off at the pass. Fast.
“Shouldn’t we be talking about Ryan’s attempts to commit suicide by cheap restaurant,” Elle said, moving the focus of their discussion well away from her dangerous hobbies.
As one, the group turned their attention to Ryan, who was on his sixth pastry. It was deeply unfair that he could eat like a garbage disposal unit and still have a six-pack. Elle once ate three Snickers in one day and gained two pounds. Where was the justice in that?
“Has anyone tested the dishwater at your buffet restaurant?” Julia Barone asked, earning an indulgent smile from her husband, Joe. Elle loved the way his eyes softened when he looked at Julia, as though in awe of how perfect she was. “If they’re that cheap, they might not have the money to ensure their premises are up to standard. Bacteria can grow quickly if the water isn’t hot enough to clean the dishes.”
“I’ve eaten there loads of times and never got sick,” Ryan said.
“What?” He looked more confused than usual.
Megan pointed a finger at him from across the table. “You could eat eggs labeled ‘contains salmonella’ and not get sick. You have a cast-iron stomach.”
“Aw”—Ryan faked a sympathetic smile—“are you still upset because that Scottish constitution of yours got food poisoning at a Chinese restaurant? Let’s face it, you Scots might think you’re tough, but you aren’t as hardy as a born-and-bred Londoner.”
Megan shot him the finger. “It was the broccoli Dimitri made me eat. I should have stuck to the fried food, and I would have been fine.”
“Yeah, Buffy”—her husband patted Megan’s head, taking his life into his hands—“you keep telling yourself that.”
The glare Megan flashed Dimitri promised retribution, making him shift his chair away from her. Even a former army ranger couldn’t contend with the untrained Berserker rage of the Scottish.
Callum McKay, their team leader and one of the owners of Benson Security, stalked into the room, slamming the door behind him. As usual, the grumpy-arsed Scot wore his signature gray Henley and jeans.
“Time to work,” he growled. “No more girly chitchat. Try to behave like professionals.”
Dimitri dug out his wallet, removed a ten-pound note, and handed it over the table to Ryan. “You win. It took him less than a minute to tell us to behave like professionals.”
Ryan took the money gleefully. “And that’s my lunch paid for.”
“I take offense at your girly comment,” Megan told him. “Just sayin’, any more sexist bullshit like that, and the girls are going to use you for target practice—while we discuss hairstyles.”
The very air in the room stopped moving as the two scary Scottish teammates faced off.
“Ten pounds Megan wins in a fight,” Elle whispered to Ryan.
“Callum can take her easy. He’s got more experience and training.”
“But she’s a hair-puller.”
Callum slammed his hands on the table. “Focus on the work,” he barked. “Julia, give us a rundown on where everyone is and the status of their ops. And for the record, I would decimate that wee lassie in a fight.”
There was a moment’s stunned silence before Elle blinked. “Did you just make a joke? Was that banter? Are you feeling okay? Do we need to get your wife? Someone call Isobel; tell her Callum has had some sort of seizure.”
“Start the presentation, Julia,” Callum ordered while staring at Elle. “And if anyone dials Isobel, they’ll lose a finger.”
Before anyone could say anything else, a meticulously prepared PowerPoint presentation appeared on the screen behind Callum’s head. It detailed the jobs currently underway in the London office. They had team members out on bodyguard duty, a duo trying to ferret out the culprit behind a case of industrial espionage, others installing security systems for top companies, and several ongoing background checks and deep dives for various clients.
“Are you coming to lunch with me?” Ryan whispered, obviously having tuned out the presentation too.
“No. Because I want to live to see my thirties.”
“Come on.” He batted his lashes and pouted. Which only reminded her of a cow she’d once seen. “I’ll pay. I’m about to win a tenner from Joe too, because any second now, Callum is going to explode. Which means lunch is free for both of us.”
“Elle! Ryan!” Callum roared. “Are we boring you?”
“Told you,” Ryan whispered as he held out his palm to Joe.
“Not at the moment, but if we don’t get some interesting jobs soon, there’s going to be a tipping point.” Elle smiled brightly at her boss. “Right now, I find all of you very entertaining. It’s like being in an episode of The Muppets.”
Callum started that deep growling noise he made just before turning completely feral.
“As I was saying”—Julia jumped in, keeping the peace as usual. At least this time, she wasn’t playing Bette Midler to do it—“there have been a number of inquiries from prospective clients, most of them seeking information on…on…” She cleared her throat. “These people are looking for…” Her brow furrowed as she flushed a fetching shade of pink. “I’m sorry, I can’t concentrate when I’m worried about where Ryan’s eating.” She turned to her husband. “Would you mind very much if we just popped over there to check out their kitchen?”
“Anything you need, Jules.” His smile made Elle melt.
Julia bravely patted Callum’s arm. “I won’t be long, and then we can carry on. I’m so sorry about this, but you would be upset if Ryan got food poisoning and died, wouldn’t you?”
Callum narrowed his eyes at Ryan. “Not at the moment, no.”
“Anyway,” Julia said, fluttering nervously toward the door, “Elle’s up to date on everything that’s happening, so she can fill in any gaps until I return.” She hurried out, followed by Joe, who shrugged while flashing them a grin.
Callum pinched the bridge of his nose, a sure sign he was reaching the end of his tether.
“So”—Elle took a deep breath—“to sum up Julia’s briefing: we’ve managed to attract a whole bunch of boring clients who want mundane jobs done that are well beneath our collective skill level. Our reputation is working against us because every paranoid moron in the UK now wants to work with the best. I say we screw up some jobs to scare away the civilians in the hope that someone with a real problem gets in touch instead. Any questions?” She beamed at her team as Callum spun on his heel and left the room.
Elle pointed after him. “I’m going to take that as the boss being in full agreement with my idea,” she said.