When Mike Harte saw Josh Aston sitting alone at the bar reading a book about burglary, he had no idea the man he first thought was a college student owned his own security firm. Since Mike was a private investigator, the coincidence led him to the idea that, perhaps, they should merge their two agencies.
It didn't take much persuasion on Mike's part to get Josh to agree. In fact, Josh was the one who pursued the idea by taking Mike up on his offer to visit Harte Investigations. The only thing that surprised Mike was the fact Josh, despite being a bodyguard as well as a security expert, never used a gun.
With the agencies merged, will the two men act on their mutual attraction and combine their personal lives as well? Or will their opposing styles on the dangerous jobs they work together drive them apart?
The first time Mike saw Josh, it was the last Monday evening in April.
The man was sitting alone at the far end of the bar in Thirty-One Twelve--named after its address--3112 Page Street. He was reading, his chin propped on one hand as he stared down at the book, a bottle of near-beer at his elbow. Occasionally, he'd jot something on the pad of paper next to him before going back to reading. Mike wondered if he was a college student. He didn't look more than twenty-two or three, at the most, from Mike's vantage point. If so, why study in a noisy bar, especially when he wasn't drinking real beer?
Curious, Mike picked up his bottle and wandered down to peer over the young man's shoulder. "Must be a pretty good book," he said.
Obviously startled, the guy turned to look at Mike before putting a finger between the pages to keep his place then closing the book to show Mike the cover.
"A book about burglary? Planning on breaking in somewhere?" Mike asked with a snort of amusement.
"Nope." He opened the book again, returning his attention to what he was reading.
"Short and sweet. By the way, I'm Mike."
He didn't finish whatever he was going to say, so Mike laughed, asking, "Not Mike? Or not interested in talking?"
He looked up, his lips twitching with a hint of a smile. "Both?"
"Okay. I won't bother you anymore."
Mike started to walk away when the young man said, "I'm Josh."
Turning back, Mike replied, "Nice to meet you. May I?" He pointed to the vacant stool next to Josh.
Josh shrugged and nodded, going back to the book after taking a sip of his drink.
Mike studied him openly, realizing as he did that Josh wasn't as young as he'd first thought. He decided he was probably closer to his own thirty-three than the twenty-three he'd guesstimated. He was slender, almost wiry, with dark hair that was a bit too long--which is why I thought he was a college student, I suppose--and hazel eyes. He chastised himself for jumping to conclusions based on first impressions. Given what he did for a living, he should have known better.
Josh turned to look at him. "Got my face memorized yet?"
Mike noted the touch of humor in his gaze, so he replied, "Getting there." He tapped the book. "Why are you reading about burglary?"
"The more I know about it, the easier it is to..." Josh snapped his mouth closed.
"To break in somewhere?"
"Yes. But not for the reason you're probably thinking."
Mike grinned. "Got it. You're an intrepid secret agent who needs to steal state secrets, so you have to know the best ways to enter a building without getting caught."
"Nope. Not a spy, not a burglar, though I suspect I might make a good one if I put my mind to it. I've studied enough about them and how they do what they do."
"Just studying won't do any good if you don't practice what you've learned. Theoretically, at least."
Josh cocked his head. "What makes you think I haven't?" he asked while taking in Mike's short brown hair, gray-blue eyes above a classically straight nose, and his fairly muscular body.
After taking a drink of his beer, Mike set the bottle down again. "So you've broken into places? Or stolen a car? Or robbed a bank? Or...murdered someone?"
"Two out of four."
"I hope murder's not one of them," Mike said with a dry smile.
"Nope. Neither is robbing a bank. You need a gun for that and I detest them."
Leaning back, Mike asked, "If you're not a criminal--and I'm taking your word for it on that, for now--why break in somewhere or steal a car?"
Josh smiled. "As you said, you have to practice what you've learned. It's difficult to protect someone if you don't know how a potential attacker might get into their home or place of business--and how to defend against that happening."
"You're telling me that's what you do?" Mike looked as if he thought Josh was pulling his leg.
"Yes. I run a one-man protection service, primarily installing security for businesses, sometimes acting as a bodyguard for a client."
"You have got to be... Wait a minute. If you hate guns, how can you be a bodyguard?"
"There are a lot of other ways to fend off an attacker without shooting them," Josh replied.
"True." Mike nodded slowly, again studying him.
"What?" Josh asked when Mike's scrutiny went on too long without him saying anything.
"I was just thinking how coincidental this is." Mike tapped a finger on the bar.
"I came in here to unwind after a much-too-busy day. I see a man I figure is a college student sitting at the other end of the bar and wonder why he's studying here rather than at home where it's quieter."
"And your inquisitive gene kicks in, so you decide to find out. That still doesn't tell me why you think this is coincidental."
"My busy day," Mike replied, "involved trying to locate a runaway, doing background checks for a client, and following a man who's suing a shopkeeper because he fell and injured himself on a wet floor--or so he claims."
"You think he's pulling a scam?" Josh asked, his interest piqued.
"I know he is after watching him grocery shopping, loading a fifty-pound bag of dog food into his car, and later in the day, wrestling with his dog in the backyard of his house. A very large dog, by the way."
"So, you're telling me you're a private investigator."
"Yep. See the coincidence?"
Josh waggled his hand. "Sort of. I don't do any investigating. Do you do any security work?"
"Like setting it up? Nope. Not my field of expertise. I have done some bodyguard work, on rare occasions."
Josh nodded. "Do you have your own agency or do you work for someone?"
"Like you, I'm flying solo, except for my receptionist. You ought to stop by sometime to check it out."
"Should I expect a dingy, two-room suite in a run-down building in a bad area of town, like in the movies?" Josh asked with a grin.
Mike laughed. "Not that bad. I'm downtown in a newer building and my office is quite presentable, thanks. No dirty walls, no cobwebs in the corners, and an up-to-date computer system."
"I might have to stop by, if I knew where you are and who you are, other than Mike something."
Mike took a card from his wallet then handed it to Josh.
"Michael Harte Investigations," Josh read aloud. "I'm Joshua Aston, though if you call me Joshua, I'll ignore you."
"Family name?" Mike asked.
Josh rolled his eyes. "Yeah, after my father and grandfather. Thank God, we all have different middle names so I'm not a Third." He shuddered.
Mike chuckled, pointing to Josh's nearly empty bottle. "Want another?"
"No thanks. I should get out of here. I have an early morning job for a new client."
"It's only..." Mike glanced at the clock on the wall across from the bar. "Okay. It's later than I thought. It's been nice talking with you, Josh. I meant it. Stop by sometime, if you get the chance."