“Gus, hey, Gus.” There was a rush of footsteps, and a heavy hand landed on his shoulder. He spun around, taking a backwards step at the same time, leaving him a little unbalanced.
“What?” he exclaimed in alarm. Damn. It’s been nearly a year—will I ever get used to hearing that name? He smiled sheepishly when he saw his friend Drew staring wide-eyed at him, holding his hand up like it had been burned.
“Sorry, Drew.” Gus huffed a laugh that was more relief than humor. “I—uh, I was miles away.”
“Clearly,” Drew replied, looking a little confused. “I was just… I wanted to change my lunch order to a veggie wrap, yeah?”
“Jamie’s still got you on a short leash?” Gus teased, but his heart was still beating a tad too fast.
Drew smiled and shrugged. “She’s my very own Jiminy Cricket.”
That pulled a real laugh from Gus. Drew’s four-year-old, ball-of-energy daughter had had him on his toes ever since she’d learned about good nutrition at nursery.
“Veggie wrap it is,” Gus said. “Have you seen Annie around?”
“She said something about a meeting with a new client,” Drew replied. “I don’t think she’ll be back for lunch.”
“Yeah? Good for her.” Gus blushed when he realized how patronizing that must have sounded. “I mean, for her business, you know?”
Drew tipped his head to the side, and he narrowed his eyes. “Are you okay?”
Aside from feeling like an idiot? “Yes, sure, of course.” He felt the heat in his cheeks burn, and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “I’ll just… Nice man bun, by the way.”
Drew’s eyes flicked up as if he could see his own dark hair, caught up in a messy bun. “Uh, thanks, I guess.” He was looking more baffled by the second.
But before Drew could say anything further, Gus hurried off toward the stairs and descended them two at a time. It was only when he reached the bottom and glanced at the phone in his hand that he realized he’d intended to phone the lunch order in before heading down to collect it.
Alone in the foyer, with the muffled sound of music drifting down the stairs, Gus let his head fall forward and took a deep breath.
What the hell was that? Hadn’t he put the days of jumping at his own shadow behind him?
“Okay, enough of that,” he said, voice firm and, giving himself a mental shake, he squared his shoulders and raised his chin, hoping to translate looking composed into feeling that way.
The blast of chilly wind that hit him when he stepped outside the main door of the studios was bracing, so Gus took a moment to enjoy the late autumn day.
In those last days of October, the cobbled lane in which the building stood—just behind the bustling main street of Glasgow’s West End—was sparsely populated. The bars and restaurants had taken in the pavement tables that were so prized in the summer months, and it was a little too cold for the usual window shoppers to linger outside the independent boutiques and gift shops.
Gus appreciated the peace. It was easier to see potential danger when there was no crowd for it to hide in.
When his heart rate had returned to its normal rhythm, Gus stepped away from the doorway and walked the few steps to The Backstreet Bean. He hated that he couldn’t fight the urge to scan the lane, just once more.
The Bean, owned by Asa Lennox—who also owned the studios upstairs—and run by his younger sister Erin, was busy no matter what time of year it was, and Gus felt a bit exposed as he crossed from the glass door to the serving counter in the corner. He wished he’d phoned the order in, as was the norm, but for some reason he couldn’t fathom, today didn’t feel normal. Something felt…off, somehow, but for the life of him he couldn’t think what.
“Hey, sweetheart, what can I get you?”
Gus realized he’d drifted off when he was startled by Erin’s greeting. “Oh, hi, Erin. Just the lunch order, thanks.” He dug the piece of paper he’d scribbled on out of his pocket and handed it over.
“Sure thing, but why didn’t you just call and I would have let you know when it was ready to pick up?” she asked, a smile lighting up her pretty face.
Gus shrugged and tucked his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “I-I just felt like a breath of air, so…”
“Well, okay then, sweetie,” Erin replied, glancing over the hastily written list. “I’ll have this ready in no time, why don’t you have a seat while you wait?”
Gus nodded and she spun away on the ball of her foot toward the kitchen. But rather than finding somewhere to sit, Gus instead moved to stand at the end of the counter, with his back to the wall so that he could see the whole room.
The patrons of The Bean were a wide and varied lot, from suit-wearing business people to scruffy-looking students, and yummy mummies comfortably breast-feeding their infants while checking their smartphones.
Near the back, in one of the semicircular booths, Gus spotted Annie, her red hair like a beacon in the muted lighting. She was talking animatedly, and her hands seemed to be drawing something in the air.
Gus smiled, imagining the glint of excitement that entered her blue eyes whenever she talked about work. He couldn’t quite make out the person—presumably the client—sitting opposite Annie. Male, dark hair, suited and booted—that was about as much as Gus could see, since the man was sitting in the shade of one of Erin’s huge plants.
“Excuse me, may I—?”
Gus stepped out of the way when a young woman gestured to the glass case he was partially obscuring. She smiled sweetly and flicked her eyelashes a couple of times, then seemed to brush against him deliberately when she stepped closer. Gus just moved another few feet away and was about to resume leaning when a thought brought him suddenly alert.
“Erin?” he called out, moving around the counter so that he was level with the kitchen door.
The door swung open and Erin poked her head out. “Something wrong, hon?”
“Yeah, sorry,” Gus said, holding up his hands in a silent apology. “You haven’t made up Drew’s roast beef sandwich, have you? Because he asked me to change that to a veggie wrap.”
“No problem,” Erin said with a dismissive wave of her hand, and a grin. “Jamie’s still cracking the whip, then?”
“She’s just looking after her old man.” Gus smiled. “Thanks, Erin.”
“Won’t be more than a few minutes,” she promised with a wink, and as she went back inside the door swung, giving Gus a quick peek at the kitchen staff rushing around making up orders.
His smile deepened. As busy as she must have been running The Bean, Erin always insisted on making up their food herself.
He turned at the sound of Annie calling his name, and saw his friend waving at him from her seat. He lifted his hand to wave back, but realized that she seemed to be beckoning him over.
Confused as to why she would call him over while she was in the middle of a business meeting, and certain that he must have been mistaken, Gus hesitated. But Annie just signaled again, so vehemently that he could hear the jingle of the bangles on her wrist all the way across the room.
Curious eyes turned toward Gus, and embarrassment made his skin prickle. Just to avoid the staring, he navigated a path through the tables, keeping his eyes on the floor until he reached Annie’s table.
“Gus, love, why don’t you join us?” she asked, sliding along the leather seat to make room for him.
Gus shook his head. “No, really, Annie, I don’t want to interrupt your meeting. I’m just getting food for the guys, and then I’ll head back upstairs.”
“Well, join us while you wait,” she insisted. “I wanted to introduce you to Brodie.”
For the first time, Gus properly looked at the man with Annie. An odd sound, not unlike a hiccup, escaped Gus, and the cadence of his heart went from slightly ruffled to holy fuck in the time it took to blink.