Chasing christmas eve, p.1
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       Chasing Christmas Eve, p.1

         Part #4 of Heartbreaker Bay series by Jill Shalvis
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  Prologue

  #OhPluckIt

  Colbie Albright stood in the crowded LaGuardia Airport staring up at the flight departure board. Her chest was tight and her throat felt like it was closing in.

  Classic anxiety, she told herself. Just breathe right through it.

  Not that her body listened to her brain. Her body rarely listened to good sense.

  In any case, it was December 1 and people were rushing all around her like chickens without their heads, while she stood still trying to figure out her choice of destination. Her only requirements were warm and tropical. An exotic beach would fit the bill perfectly.

  Aruba.

  Jamaica.

  Oooh, I wanna take you . . .

  Great, and now the Beach Boys song was stuck in her head. Doing her best to shake it off, she eyed the board again. So many choices for a twenty-eight-year-old runaway with a packed bag and no regrets.

  From inside her purse her phone vibrated and she grimaced. Okay, so there were regrets. Buckets of them that made her suitcase feel like a thousand pounds and sucked the air from her lungs, but she refused to let herself turn tail and go back.

  She was doing this.

  But even as she thought it, the board changed and a bunch of the flights—all the southbound ones—blinked off and came back on . . . showing as delayed or cancelled.

  “A surprise late season hurricane,” someone said in disgust next to her. “Of course.”

  Okay, so she wasn’t going south. There was a flight to Toronto in twenty minutes but Toronto was the opposite of warm and tropical, and plus it wouldn’t give her enough time to grab some breakfast. Apparently running away really ramped up a girl’s appetite . . .

  That’s when her gaze locked on a flight leaving for San Francisco in an hour. Huh. California, the land of celebrities, avocados, surfer dudes. She’d never really had a chance to enjoy any of those things. In fact, LaGuardia was the furthest she’d been from home in three years. But hey, there was a first time for everything, right?

  Right.

  She nodded, psyching herself up for this. After years of taking care of her family and working herself half to death, she deserved this. She needed this.

  So . . . San Francisco or bust.

  It would work, she assured herself. Getting away would allow her to find her muse again, her love for the writing. And so, convinced, she strode to the ticket counter.

  Fifteen minutes later, she hit the very long, very slow-moving security line. Surrounded by people complaining about the wait, she was in the process of removing her laptop, her sweater, her shoes, her watch, and her bracelet and was patting herself down to make sure she’d gotten everything out of her pockets when a TSA agent pulled her aside.

  “Oh,” she said, “I’m not carrying any liquids over three ounces.”

  The guy shrugged. “Random female,” he said. “That your bag?”

  “Yes.” This was what she got for buying a last-minute one-way ticket and she bit her lower lip as the agent started to go through her things. She favored layers, especially tees and sweaters with loose skirts or yoga pants—even though she’d never been to a yoga class in her life. He pawed through everything, pausing at the sight of her bunny slippers—which, hey, totally completed her favorite writing uniform.

  “My three-year-old kid has these,” he said and then kept going, alternately looking up at the X-ray monitor and down at her bag, clearly seeking something specific. He moved aside a lightweight jersey dress and she grimaced as some lacy, silky things were exposed. Maybe her clothes were nothing special but she did have a thing about what she wore beneath them, her one concession to feeling sexy in this crazy life she’d built where she didn’t have time to actually be sexy . . .

  Luckily for his health, the agent’s stoic expression never changed. No doubt he’d seen it all and couldn’t care less as he dug past her favorite peach lace bra-and-panty set, a box of tampons, and . . .

  “Ah,” he said, holding up an apple.

  “Are apples a problem?” Colbie asked.

  “They sometimes look weird on the screen.”

  “No weirdness here,” she said. “Just a morning snack. It’s not even poisonous.” She added a harmless smile.

  He didn’t return it, because he was staring at some papers she’d paper-clipped and shoved in her bag to read on the plane. “How to murder people by poison without detection,” he read aloud.

  The woman behind Colbie gasped in horror.

  “Okay,” Colbie said, pointing to them. “That’s not what it looks like.”

  The woman behind her, cradling a leopard-print cat carrier, had turned and was frantically whispering to the people behind her.

  “Really,” Colbie said. “It’s a funny story, actually.”

  But the TSA guy was flipping through her notes, not even remotely interested in her funny story. He didn’t need to read aloud what he was looking at, because she knew exactly what was there—other Google searches, such as how to get away with murder using a variety of different everyday products that weren’t considered weapons. “It’s research,” she said to the room.

  “Yeah, that’s probably what I’d say too,” a guy said from somewhere behind her.

  Colbie didn’t look back; she just kept her gaze on the TSA agent, trying to look nonthreatening as she said something she rarely if ever said aloud. “I’m a writer.”

  “Uh-huh.” He pulled out his radio now with an ominous “Female agent, please.”

  “Oh, pluck it!” she snapped.

  The agent narrowed his gaze. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “Nothing bad,” she said. “That’s the point. See, we’ve got this swear jar at home, which means I’ve gone broke swearing, so I say other stuff instead of bad words. Stuff that sounds like bad words but isn’t. I don’t lose any money that way, and—” She broke off because he didn’t appear impressed. “Look, never mind that,” she said. “Just believe me, I’m not a problem. You saw the bunny slippers, right?”

  “Ma’am,” he said, pulling her bag aside. “I’m going to need you to come with me.”

  “No, really! If you look in my purse, you’ll see it’s filled with scraps of paper, napkins, whatever, all with handwritten notes on them. I write notes for my books all the time. Plot points. Characterization stuff. Just little things, really. For instance . . .” She looked around and gestured to the woman behind her. “ ‘Crazy cat lady with a leopard-print cat carrier—’ ”

  “Hey,” the crazy cat lady with the leopard-print cat carrier said.

  Colbie ignored her. “—or ‘friendly, sweet, kind TSA agent with a heart of gold . . .’ ” she said, and added a flirty, hopefully innocent-looking smile. “I use the notes in my books. It adds color and heart to the story and all that.”

  The agent’s eyes were still suspicious, but at least he opened her purse to check her story. And just as she’d said, it was filled with what probably looked like trash but were in fact little treasures to be revisited and added to her manuscript.

  “What do you write?” he asked, unraveling a small square bar napkin and staring at the words she’d scribbled on it: Icicle—the perfect weapon. It melts and vanishes!

  The agent lifted his gaze and leveled it on her.

  “Cheese and rice!” she exclaimed and drew a deep, calming breath. It didn’t help. “Okay, listen,” she said. “It’s not what it looks like. I write young adult action-adventure. Postapocalyptic world.” She was hoping to not have to go further than that, but the expression on his face told her she was on borrowed time. “The characters are teenagers with powers they acquired in the radioactive war,” she added.

  “And these teenagers, they . . . kill people?”

 
“No,” she said. “But the bad guys do. And it’s fiction. You know, made-up stuff.” She pointed to her brain and shook her head, like, See? Harmless. “And so really, all this is for naught. It’s not like I’ve got a bomb in my bag or anything.”

  In hindsight, she probably shouldn’t have mentioned the word bomb. She missed her flight and almost the next one, instead becoming intimate, very intimate, with a pair of female TSA agents.

  She also missed breakfast.

  And lunch.

  And the nap she’d been counting on since she hadn’t slept more than a few hours in so long she couldn’t remember what a good night’s sleep felt like.

  Not exactly an auspicious beginning to her vacation from life, but hopefully all her trouble was behind her now and the rest of the trip would be perfect.

  A girl could dream anyway . . .

  Eight hours later, she pressed her face to the window of her plane as it banked and came in for a landing at SFO International. They’d been diverted twice for too much air traffic, which turned out to be a blessing because they came in from the north, giving her a view of the Golden Gate Bridge glowing red in the late afternoon sun. The bay was a gorgeous sparkling blue, all of it looking like a postcard, and something in her tight chest loosened. It seemed like the entire world was laid out in front of her and she brought a hand up to the window as if she could actually touch the sight.

  This, she told herself. This was exactly what the doctor had ordered—if she’d actually gone to a doctor for her anxiety and crippling writer’s block. Here she would find herself, so that by the time she went back home in three weeks for Christmas Eve, she’d be happy again.

  She was sure of it.

  Chapter 1

  #SonOfABeanbagChair

  “Spencer Baldwin?” an unfamiliar female voice asked.

  Shit. Anyone who used his full name was most definitely not someone he wanted to speak with. After the past few months, he knew better than to answer his phone without looking at the screen, but with both hands busy directing a drone around the room, he’d answered on voice command without thinking about it.

  “Wrong number,” he said, the drone hovering with perfect precision—and engineering—above his head. Then, to prevent a repeat call while he was working, he took one hand off the controls and chucked his phone out the high, narrow window of the basement.

  Which felt great.

  Directing the drone to continue hovering, he moved to the far wall of the huge basement below the Pacific Pier Building and climbed the three-foot ladder that was against the window for just this sort of situation.

  Yep. His cell phone had landed directly in the fountain in the center of the courtyard. “Three points,” he murmured just as the elevator doors opened and Elle entered.

  “Are you kidding me?” she asked in a tone that only she could get away with and not die. “You killed another one? Why don’t you just stop answering to the damn reporters—wouldn’t that be easier?”

  He turned his attention back to his drone, impressed with the changes he’d made in the flight software. “Am I paying you to bitch at me?” he asked mildly.

  “As a matter of fact, yes,” she said. “You’re actually paying me a hell of a lot of money to bitch at you. Why don’t I just change your phone number again?”

  “He can’t,” Joe said from the other side of the room. He wore only a pair of knit boxers and stood in front of one of the three commercial-grade washer-dryers, waiting for his clothes. “Me and the guys like it when he gets all the marriage proposals.”

  “You mean you like the nudie pics that come with the proposals,” Elle said.

  “They send him presents sometimes too,” Joe said. “Junk food and panties. That’s always fun.”

  Elle rolled her eyes. “Why are you in just your underwear?”

  Joe was an IT wizard who worked at Hunt Investigations two floors up. He was second in charge there, a master finder and fixer of . . . well, just about anything, and fairly badass while he was at it. And although Elle terrified almost everyone on the planet, Joe just grinned at her. “Had a little tussle earlier on the job,” he said. “Spence let me in down here to use the machines.”

  Elle was not impressed. “If by tussle you mean a takedown went bad and you got blood all over yourself again, you best not be using those machines.”

  “Hey, at least it’s not my blood. And I’m fine, thanks for asking.”

  Elle went hands on hips. She managed this building for the owner, who happened to be Spence—and she often mistook her job for actual world domination, trying to run his personal life as well.

  But Spence had nixed his personal life a long time ago. It was the Baldwin curse. He could be successful in his business life or his personal life—pick one—but not both. Since he objected on a very base level to going back to abject poverty, he’d long ago decided business was a safer bet than love.

  Although, to be honest, he’d made a few forays into attempting both and had failed spectacularly.

  “Oh, and did you hear that Spence here is rumored to be one of the top ten nominees for San Francisco’s most eligible bachelor?” Joe asked Elle, giving a snort as if this was hysterical.

  Spence leaned forward and banged his head against the wall a few times.

  “Don’t bother,” Elle said. “Your head’s harder than the concrete. And yes,” she told Joe. “I know. I figure that’s part of the reason he just threw his phone out the window?”

  “I could just scare everyone off your ass for you,” Joe said to Spence.

  He was kidding. Probably. And actually, Spence was more than a little tempted. This mess was his own fault, for trusting someone he shouldn’t have. As a result, the press had been having a field day with his success in a very large way, threatening his privacy and also his sanity.

  Just thinking about the “most eligible bachelor” thing had him groaning.

  “Listen,” Elle said more kindly now. “Go take a break, okay? Then you can come back and shut out the world and work.”

  It was a well-known fact that Spence’s ability to hyper-focus and ignore everything around him was both a strength and a giant flaw. Great asset for an engineer/inventor, not so great for anything else, like, say, relationships. But truthfully, he was hungry, so a break sounded good. He headed toward the elevator.

  “Uh,” Elle said, gesturing to his clothes. “You might want to . . .”

  “What?” he asked, looking down at himself. So he hadn’t shaved in a few days—so what? And okay, maybe he lived out of his dryer, grabbing clean but wrinkled clothes from there in the mornings when he got dressed. Whatever. There were worse things. “Joe’s in his underwear.”

  “Hey, at least I was wearing some today,” Joe said.

  Elle took in the guy’s nearly naked form, clearly appreciating the view in spite of her being very much taken in the relationship department by Joe’s boss Archer Hunt. She finally shook it off and turned back to Spence. “You know damn well when you walk across the courtyard talking to yourself, hair standing up thanks to your fingers, all stubbly because you forgot to shave, and those black-rimmed glasses slipping down your annoyingly perfect nose, women come out of the woodwork.”

  “They do?” Joe asked.

  “It’s the hot geek look,” Elle said.

  “Huh.” Joe rubbed his jaw, where he too had stubble. “Maybe I should try that sometime.”

  “No,” Elle said. “You can’t pull off hot geek. Your looks say sexy badass, not geek, which apparently is like a siren call to crazy women everywhere.”

  Joe looked pleased. “I’m okay with that.”

  Elle ignored this and looked at Spence. “After your last romantic fiasco, you vowed to take a break, remember? So all I’m saying is that you might want to change up your look.”

  “How?”

  “I don’t know,” she said. “Slouch. Get a beer gut. Fart. Whatever it is that guys do to organically turn us off.”

  “Wait,”
Joe said. “You gave up sex after Clarissa dumped you, what, two years ago now? Like, willingly?”

  “Something you should try sometime,” Elle said to him.

  “Woman, bite your tongue.”

  “No, really,” she said. “How do you even keep all their names straight?”

  “Easy,” Joe said with a smile. “If I forget their name, I just take them to Starbucks in the morning and wait until the barista asks their name for their cup.”

 

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