When I arrived in McRory’s that evening I was feeling rather chuffed with myself; despite signing what felt like at least a million copies of various books from both the Rebecca Silver and Jackson Steel series, such as it was so far, I’d still managed to find the time to swing by Mike’s on Massachusetts Avenue on the way to pick up the present I’d ordered for Eliot. Not that I was big on commercialised Hallmark holidays, really, but it was our first one together and I wanted to do something to mark the occasion.
Well, yes, the Josie Natori silk chemise I’d grabbed last week was still sitting at home carefully tucked between a pair of t-shirts so he didn’t spot it and start doing that hopeful eyebrow-waggling thing that he did, but that was for later, and if the job the team had been working on today hadn’t turned out to be too strenuous. I knew better than to make any overly physical plans by now, especially when former CIA in-house security teams were mentioned as part of a mark’s company security.
Happily nobody seemed to be nursing bruises or nearly-broken bones when I saw them clustered around the corner table in the pub, so I grabbed a round of everyone’s usual at the bar and waved off the waitress, taking the tray over myself once it was full. McRory’s didn’t go in much for Valentines dressing so the pub was unadorned apart from a higher than usual ratio of couples to groups or singles, which was honestly a mild relief because after the Great Christmas Grouch, as Parker had nicknamed it, I don’t think anyone wanted to see Nate’s reaction to any other attempts at decorative festivities. Talk about a mood killer.
‘I take it Eclipse Industries didn’t have a very fun day?’ I quipped.
‘Definitely not,’ Sophie said with a grin. ‘It wound up being a much better one for the Bryant family, though. How was the signing?’
‘Bloody madhouse. I think I have hand cramp.’
‘Yeah?’ Eliot pushed out the empty chair next to him, leaning over to catch my wrist and planting a kiss on my palm with an impish smile. ‘Maybe I can help with that.’
‘Oh, yeah, give the poor woman wrist cramp to match, that’ll help,’ Hardison said dryly, which got him a mild glare and a low growl.
‘If you’re being snarky then I assume you don’t want the copy of Green Arrow #6 I grabbed from the book shop before the meet,’ I shot back, which made his eyes go like saucers even as he affected instantly over-dramatic contrition.
‘I – ah – I apologise. Profusely. Thoroughly. Lavishly. Please, forgiveness, I beg you-‘ the effect was rather ruined by the grabby hands motion he was making at the same time, but everyone else was chuckling now so I extracted the comic from my satchel to throw at him. He immediately scrambled to open the plastic wrapper and made several not at all discreet squee noises, flipping through the pages in evident glee while Parker peered owlishly at them over his shoulder.
‘You gotta stop indulging him,’ Eliot said, rolling his eyes. ‘Between that and the snack food…’
‘Always be nice to tech support.’ I pecked him on the cheek and tucked some stray locks of hair behind his ear. ‘Besides, I brought you something too. Actually two somethings, but the second is more a when-we’re-back-home present…’
‘Oh yeah?’ A smirk. ‘Sounds like fun.’
‘Later. Behave.’ I pushed the little bag at him and shuffled the chair over a bit so I could lean into his side, which made him laugh, and he gave me another kiss.
‘Not that I’m complaining, darlin’, but what’s the occasion? Were you that worried about those security guys?’
Hardison’s happy noises stopped like someone had flipped a switch, as did Sophie’s titter and even Nate’s groan. Parker’s mouth had fallen open and she looked torn between bursting into laughter or just crying out in horror, like someone watching a horror movie where the protagonist was about to walk into the room where the killer was waiting.
‘Dude,’ Alec said after a beat, as Eliot abruptly seemed to register them all gaping at him. ‘Really?’
I put my mouth over my hand to stop myself from exploding into giggles as Sophie cocked her head and gave him a pointed glare.
‘I know we’ve been busy with the job and all but… it is today, isn’t it?’
‘…yeah?’ A hint of worry crept in alongside the puzzlement.
‘Oh, no.’ Hardison shook his head. ‘Oh, no, no, no…’
‘Not good,’ Nate murmured, shaking his head and taking a long sip of his whisky.
‘Not good at all,’ Parker agreed in a whisper.
‘What?’ Eliot snapped.
‘Today, yes?’ Sophie looked like she was trying to somehow communicate it to him with the sheer power of her stare. ‘As in, today’s date?’
His brows creased, and I swore I could hear his mind start churning in urgency.
‘Oh for god’s sake.’ She gave up with a flip of her hands. ‘It’s the fourteenth, Eliot! The fourteenth of February!’
‘You forgot,’ Parker said in a sing-song voice, beaming in evident delight at catching him out. ‘You for-got it’s Valentine’s day!’
While trying not to laugh, it dimly occurred to me that I’d never seen Eliot panic before. Not the kind of outright, bunny-in-headlights, totally caught-out horror that was now naked on his face. It was impossibly funny, and absurdly adorable. He’d faced down death squads and bounty hunters and gone up against goon squads unarmed while they all had machine guns… but now he was panicking.
‘W-‘ his gaze slid to me, clearly seeking some sign of my reaction, how upset and-or pissed I was at the uncharacteristic memory lapse, and then his mouth moved soundlessly a few times as if trying out and then dismissing various attempts at a verbal defence. Apparently my poker face was better than I’d thought.
‘Ruh-roh.’ Hardison was grinning fit to split his face by now. ‘You in the dog house now, man. For shame.’
That set Parker giggling again, but now even Nate seemed to be struggling to hide a smirk at the team’s unflappable hitter suddenly becoming very much flapped, as it were. He actually caught my eye with what looked suspiciously like a wink, before masking the action behind another sip of whisky.
‘You know, I-‘ Eliot began again. I took pity on him and tapped the bag in his hand.
‘Why don’t you open that and see just how seriously I take the day, hmm?’
That didn’t seem to reassure him much – Hardison’s quietly repeated murmurs of dog house, dog house weren’t helping – but he did gingerly open the bag, as if expecting it to bite him. Or possibly explode. Of course the smooth wooden guitar pick didn’t do either, and with a small frown he turned it over, spotting the engraving.
‘…I’d pick you every time.’
That got a few snickers – and a piglet snort of amusement from Parker – before Eliot slowly looked up at me with an expression that could best be described as cautiously baffled.
‘Just a little bit of cheese, then?’ I prompted, and he cracked a grin that seemed as much of relief as it was of genuine pleasure and amusement.
‘God damn it, Tess, you had me thinking I’d seriously messed up!’
I gave up and doubled over laughing as he visibly exhaled.
‘The look on your face! You were on a job, El, and even if you weren’t did you really think I’d get that much of an arse about it? You daft bugger, have you even met me?’
‘Well, yeah-‘ he hastily turned defensive ‘-but you like the cheesy things and most girls got a blind spot on stuff like this anyways-‘
‘I like to think I have a little sense of proportion, though.’ I tried not to be miffed at the most girls comment, but something must have shown on my face because he worked his jaw thoughtfully for a moment before standing and all but manhandling me towards the door with him.
‘I’ll make it up to you.’
‘You don’t need-‘
‘Yeah, but I’m gonna. Later, guys.’ And we were outside – leaving the sniggering of the others behind – and into his truck before I could protest further.
‘If making it up to me involves being dragged home, thrown onto something and ravished like a Mills & Boon heroine then I’m officially withdrawing any semblance of a hint of a complaint,’ I quipped, trying to lighten the mood because he did seemed a bit genuinely pissed off.
‘I didn’t even get anything for dinner,’ he said with a grimace, now outright glaring at the road in front of him.
‘El, it’s really fine.’ I risked putting a hand on his leg with a small squeeze. ‘I was just mucking about, and so were the others – well, maybe not Sophie so much, but she has very rigid frameworks of expectations when it comes to romance so she doesn’t count-‘
‘I ain’t angry at you.’ He glanced at me briefly as the light went red at the next intersection. ‘Just at myself. Not like there was a ton to keep top of mind for Eclipse, and I couldn’t even remember the damned date.’
‘You have to stay focused on a job,’ I soothed, trying not to chuckle at his self-chastisement. ‘It’s only a silly commercial holiday.’
‘Still wanted to do it. Properly.’ A small scowl. ‘Always did something if I weren’t working for whatever fling I had at the time in the past, but don’t remember the damn day when I got someone worth remembering it for-‘
For a moment he didn’t reply and I peered at his face, close to seriously worried, but then the scowl vanished with a thoughtful purse of his lips. His eyes narrowed slightly as we turned off the highway, and then a tiny hint of a smirk tugged at one corner of his mouth. Uh oh. I knew that look. That was his scheming look.
‘El?’ I hazarded as he pulled into the garage, but that just got me a flash of a wicked grin.
‘Got an idea.’
‘Should I be worried?’
‘Maybe.’ He looked pretty outright mischievous now. ‘Do me a favour, yeah, get a bath going?’
‘…okay.’ Intrigued, I pecked him on the cheek and led the way upstairs, starting the big tub filling and cocking an ear at the sound of him clattering about industriously in the kitchen. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Making something,’ came the dim reply, with a hint of a laugh. ‘G’wan and get in, I’ll be there in a minute.’
Well, that did sound promising. On a whim I dropped the blinds and found a couple of candles, which admittedly were the mundanely practical in-case-of-power-cuts kind rather than the scented kind, but never mind, lit them and then got undressed – the chemise could wait for later – to settle in as the bubbles rose, filling the room with a discreet scent of sage.
I’d just turned the taps off when Eliot came in, barefoot with a wooden board in one hand and two bottles of Sam Adams in the other. He put the board down carefully and I exclaimed in surprise at what was on it; the damned man had only gone and somehow made a bunch of roses out of a charcuterie board. Prosciutto, mortadella and salami mixed with what was probably the last of the gouda and some thinly sliced strips of cheddar, all artfully arranged as wrapped flowers, with some cherry tomatoes as buds and uncut chives for the stems.
‘Technically cheesier than the pick,’ he pointed out with a chuckle, passing me both beers and then proceeding to strip without further comment, giving me an amused not-quite-glare when I wolf-whistled at him. Then, to my lasting delight, he climbed carefully into the tub beside me and took one of the beers back, taking a quick swig before draping one arm around my shoulders and giving me a soft squeeze. Laughing, I took a pull of my own beer and then leaned up to kiss him thoroughly, prompting a pleased sort of sound.
‘I never thought you’d out-cheese me,’ I commented as we broke off, ‘Especially on Valentine’s, but this is perfect.’
‘Glad I could salvage it.’ Grinning now, he popped a cherry tomato into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully for a moment before swallowing. ‘I know it ain’t a big deal for you, really, but I wanted to do something and I’m still kinda pissed with myself for losing track of the days.’
‘There were a lot of all-nighters recently,’ I reminded him. ‘Tricky to keep track even with that internal stopclock of yours, especially with a purely sugar-and-caffeine powered Alec groaning over comms the whole time.’
‘Oh, Hardison weren’t the problem.’ A snort. ‘Parker, though… it’s like she went straight through tired and came out into some whole new realm of hyperactive jitters on the other side. I swear she didn’t stop talking for a single second on the third day.’
‘On the plus side she’ll probably just splat in bed for the next week.’ The thief’s highly dubious circadian rhythm, especially when working, made Eliot’s own sleep pattern seem positively normal. ‘Assuming she doesn’t slip into a coma on Nate’s couch again. Not that it wasn’t kind of cute when she got really possessive of his only throw pillow.’
‘And then ate two whole boxes of Cheerios when she finally woke up.’ Eliot shook his head. ‘I swear that girl’s gonna get diabetes before Hardison does.’
‘I’ll remind Sophie to arrange another proper team dinner soon so you can try and force some veggies into the pair of them.’ Picking up one of the folded salami roses, I examined it from all angles before taking a bite. ‘Mmm. Can’t say I’ve got a problem with some cleverly deployed sausage meat on Valentine’s Day, though.’
‘Oh yeah?’ He waggled his eyebrows at me. ‘So is that when-we’re-back-home something still on the table?’
‘Only once we’re out of the bath and dry!’
‘Uh-huh?’ Putting the board and the beers to one side, he manhandled me over onto his lap, nearly sending the water sloshing onto the floor. ‘Well, then I guess I’ll have to make my own fun in the tub with you… darlin.’