I marched into the towering edifice of United One Bank, my shoes tapping over the marble floor. I managed a brief smile for the portly security guard but it quickly fell away when I saw that half of Los Angeles had decided to do their banking at lunchtime too.
I took my place in line behind a tall blond man in jeans and a rugged brown jacket. The whiff of perfume filled my nose as a beautiful, immaculately dressed young woman of Indian heritage stepped in line behind me.
I settled in to wait, wondering if I should call my assistant, to make sure nothing was going haywire with any of my cases. But Abed knew me well: waiting until I came into the office to give me news was a bad idea. I checked my cell phone for messages and saw none. No word from my team, and nothing from the court’s clerk. No verdict yet.
I eased a sigh and then tightened up again when I realized I hadn’t filled out any forms—or whatever the hell it was I needed—to get the cashier’s check out of my firm’s expense account.
Isn’t all banking electronic by now? I wondered, irritation mounting.
The line behind me had grown and the line in front wasn’t moving. I made a questioning motion to the young woman behind me to save my place. She nodded and waved a gold-ringed hand absently without interrupting her cell phone conversation. I hurried to a wooden bank of slips, grabbed one, and stepped back in line with a brief smile of thanks.
But I had nothing to write on. The man in front of me had a strong back.
Maybe he’d let me make a desk out of him.
I smirked and admired the man’s physique from behind. Broad shoulders, narrow waist. His jeans fit him rather perfectly.
Nice ass, I thought and tingles of a very real, likely very bright blush colored my neck.
Oh, grow up, I laughed at myself.
I rummaged in my bag and pulled out a small stack of my engagement party invitations; the thick stationary would make a sufficient backing. I fished out a pen and started to fill out the little withdrawal form when woman behind me issued a sudden laugh and bumped my elbow. The little stack of envelopes flew out of my hand to scatter around my feet and that of the blond man in front of me.
“Sorry, so sorry,” the woman muttered to me.
“Honestly,” I muttered, and knelt to gather the envelopes. The blond man in front of me turned and knelt to help. “Thanks.”
I looked up and might have gasped. I prayed I hadn’t but someone issued a sharp intake of breath, and my neck went beet-red again. I could feel the fire of it burning my pale skin.
The face bent close to mine was ruggedly handsome with a strong jaw, chiseled chin, broad mouth with full lips, and—most surprisingly for a man with lighter hair—rich brown eyes, which were sharply intelligent and soft at the same time. I smelled his crisp scent—aftershave and something like freshly chopped wood—and it seemed that scent settled into my chest and remained there, warm and clean.
Wow, you’re being extra ridiculous right now.
“Have I got something stuck in my teeth?” the young man asked, amused. His voice was deep, gravelly…
I gave myself a mental shake and gathered the rest of the spilled envelopes. “No, I just…I thought I recognized you from somewhere. Are you an actor?”
He made a face. “Not remotely.”
“Oh. Well, you never can tell around here. And you look like you could be one. An actor.”
Or a model. Jesus, those eyes…
He shrugged and smiled crookedly. “I think I look like me.”
I smiled back. Good answer. I had never seen a man as good-looking—on screen or in real life—as this man in front of me. If I were a romantic sort—which I wasn’t—the word breathtaking would not be overstating it.
We both rose from the floor. His eyes were warm but he seemed to stiffen slightly as he took in my expensive suit, my jewelry, my bag.
He ran a hand through his unruly blond hair and handed me the envelopes he’d gathered. “Yeah, so. Here you go.”
“Thanks,” I said.
He turned his back to me and a small twinge of disappointment nipped at me.
Focus, Gardener, I admonished. The judge could call us back at any moment.
The blond man in front of me sighed impatiently and checked his watch—a nice looking silver timepiece with a beat-up leather band. His head turned in profile to me.
“Is it just me or has this line come to a complete standstill?”
“It’s not just you,” I said, steadfastly ignoring the little tingle that sparked in my belly at the sound of his low, bedroom voice. I cleared my throat. “Looks like they’re short a teller or two.”
“Or ten. Fuck me,” he muttered, then eyed me apologetically. “Sorry for the language, but there isn’t a worse day for this kind of—”
“Bullshit?” I supplied with a wry grin.
He laughed, and some of the tension in his face relaxed. I tried my hardest not to stare. If he was breathtaking just standing there, there wasn’t a strong enough word for how he looked when he smiled.
“I’m Cory Bishop, by the way.”
He extended his hand and I took it. Large, rough, calloused. Working man’s hands.
“Alexandra Gardener,” I said. “Alex.”
“Good to meet you, Alex,” he said, and it seemed his smile softened around my name.
I shouldered my bag to buy time for a response. No man—not even Drew, my fiancé—had ever affected me this way, and I grew irritated with myself for letting it happen.
“It’s always busy when you’re in a hurry and traffic lights are always red when you’re running late,” I said. “Murphy’s Law.”
“Is that your specialty?”
“No, litigation. How did you know I’m a lawyer?”
He shrugged. “Lucky guess. Mostly lawyers and accountants around here. Or movie producers.”
“Or actors, but we’ve already established you’re not one of those,” I said lightly.
Cory’s smile tightened. “Nope. Just in the area for work, and in need of a bank before I get back. Looks like I picked the wrong one.”
He rocked impatiently in his work boots, his hands jammed in the front pocket of his jeans. I thought the conversation was over but he was still half-turned to me.
Nothing wrong with small talk. Passes the time.
A good excuse. Plausible. No objections. But the simple fact remained that I wanted to talk to Cory, to keep looking at his handsome face, and prove I could do so without melting into a puddle.
“So what line of work are you in?” I asked.
“I’m in construction. A journeyman.” Cory said. “It’s sort of like an apprentice to a general contractor,” he said, answering my confused look. “You have to pile up a bunch of hours doing that first before you can become a contractor yourself.”
“Never heard that term before, journeyman,” I said. “Sounds rather exotic. Nomadic.”
“Yeah, well, it’s neither. Not unless you consider driving to job sites nomadic.”
The line moved ahead by one person. I noticed that Cory and I were now standing side-by-side.
“What exactly does a litigator do?” Cory asked. “Litigate…that’s argue, right?”
“Yes. I’m a trial attorney. I specialize in personal injury, and some medical malpractice.”
He scratched the light stubble on his cheek. “You don’t happen to do family law on the side?”
“No, but there’s an attorney in my firm who does.” I cocked my head, studying Cory’s troubled expression. Do you need his number?” I asked softly.
Cory looked as if he were about to say something, changed his mind, and said instead, “Nah. I’m good, thanks.”
The line inched forward and a silence fell between us. For lack of something better to do, I checked my phone for any news from Abed. Nothing.
“No news is good news, right?” Cory said, watching me return the phone to my bag.
“Not this time,” I said. “A short jury deliberation usually means a guilty verdict.”
“You’re in the middle of a trial right now?”
I nodded. “Just finished closing arguments today.”
“Well, if you get the call and have to bail, I’ll hold your place in line. It probably won’t have moved anyway.”
I laughed. “Probably not.”
He smiled and I smiled back. The bank’s air conditioning was working overdrive against the Los Angeles summer heat, but I felt warm all over. And good. It felt nice to stand beside this handsome man and bask in his smile. I did yoga four times a week to keep the stresses of my job from wrapping me tight and squeezing. Talking to Cory Bishop for all of five minutes had the exact same effect.
We stood in a comfortable silence, and I glanced here and there before venturing to make eye contact again. I caught him watching me, filling his eyes with me, and then he grinned and rubbed the back of his neck, sheepish and charming and beautiful.
He’s beautiful, I thought again. No argument there. Case closed.
I blinked and realized Cory’s dark eyes were holding mine intently, and my heart stuttered in response.
“Hey, listen—” he started to say then stopped. Froze. Whatever he had been about to say was lost forever. His eyes widened at something over my shoulder. I started to turn but he grabbed my shoulders—hard—and shoved me roughly behind him.
I stumbled in my heels. “What the hell are you doing…?”
The glass doors of the bank shook on their hinges and I turned to watch with a shocked, detached fascination as six or so men streamed inside. They wore dark, non-descript clothes, their faces hidden behind different Halloween monster masks. Each had a huge, black, automatic weapon strapped around their shoulders and gripped in gloved hands.
A scream—the first that set off a chorus—echoed in the cavernous heights of the bank as one man drove the butt of his weapon into the security guard’s midsection.
Time slowed, and it felt as if some spell had been cast turning summer to winter. I’d been suddenly submerged in ice-cold gelatin. My heart crashed hard against my chest like a wrecking ball, and I clutched Cory’s arm in a vise grip. I could feel the coarse denim of his jacket against my skin. Tangible. It helped to battle the surreal scene that was unfolding before me.
Cory turned to me. I saw fear spark bright in his dark eyes, but they held a grim determination too.
“Get down!” he shouted, breaking the strange slow-motion spell. “Get down, now!”
Time shot forward and I heard screams, tromping footsteps, and cries. But I couldn’t move. I felt rooted in place. Cory grabbed me and suddenly I was on my stomach, my face pressed to the cold floor, my hand still clutched around his arm. My heart was now pounding so hard I could hardly distinguish one beat from the next.
In seconds, I felt warped by a terror I hadn’t thought it possible to feel. I sucked in air to calm myself as above me and around me, armed men infiltrated the bank, brandishing their enormous weapons, shouting, swearing, and striking people who didn’t move or obey fast enough.
“Ladies and gentleman,” said one, shouting through his vampire mask in order to be heard while pacing among the masses of cowering people. “In the event you have any lingering confusion, this is a fucking robbery.”
Emma Scott is a bestselling author of emotional, character-driven romances in which art and love intertwine to heal, and in which love always wins. If you enjoy thoughtful, realistic stories with diverse characters and kind-hearted heroes, you will enjoy her novels.
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