Take a Hint, Dani Brown Page 2

“Someone should cure them of that. It’s disrespectful on a Monday morning.”

Before Dani could wholeheartedly agree, a barista slapped two takeout cups on the counter. “Green tea and a black coffee for Danika?”

“Thanks.” Dani grabbed the drinks and made good her escape.

“Black coffee,” Sorcha murmured as they wound through the mass of bodies. “That’ll be for your gorgeous security friend, am I right?”

“He has a name.”

“And I’d like to scream it.”

Dani almost choked on her own laughter. “Sorcha, you’re gay.”

“Thanks for noticing. Really, Dan, this is just coffee-shop banter. Girls being girls! Speaking of, this is the part where you admit all the filthy things you’d like to do to your so-called friend Zafir.”

Dani scowled at the name—mostly because if she didn’t, she might smile, which Sorcha would willfully misinterpret. “I’d never do filthy things to Zafir. He’s a nice boy.”

“Nice?” Sorcha squawked the word, incredulous. “Zaf? Zafir Ansari? That big, grumpy fucker who terrifies half your building?”

Dani sipped her green tea. “He’s very sweet once you get to know him.”

“Sweet?” Sorcha was approaching glass-shattering pitch.

Perhaps she was right; sweet might be overstating the matter. But Zaf was kind, and Dani had always had a soft spot for kind men; they were fabulously rare. Unfortunately, Zaf also avoided staring at Dani’s chest with the kind of Herculean focus that suggested either disinterest or an excess of chivalry—and Dani couldn’t stand chivalry in a man. It frequently led them to make ill-advised decisions, like inviting her to have dinner before sex, or hanging around and talking after sex.

“Zaf, gorgeous as he may be, is not an option. I’m waiting for a sign,” she reminded Sorcha. “I’ll just wank to thoughts of his beard until my perfect fuck buddy materializes.”

Sorcha considered that for a moment before shrugging. “Fair enough. Speaking of yummy unsuitables, want to have lunch with me later at that pizza place with the hot, straight waitress?”

“Can’t. Working.”

“You’re always fucking—”

Before Sorcha could finish that doubtless true statement, a man popped into their path like a mole from the earth. Dani blinked, coming to an abrupt stop. “Oh. Excuse me.”

The man didn’t seem to hear. He was tall, blond, and in possession of an easy, handsome smile that said he’d never met a boundary he couldn’t bulldoze. Case in point: “Good morning,” he purred, his eyes landing on Dani’s chest like tit-seeking missiles. “I don’t mean to bother you—”

“And yet, here we are,” Sorcha sighed.

Tall, Blond, and Witless valiantly ignored her. “—but when I see a woman wearing red lipstick before nine A.M.”—he winked—“well. I simply have to reward her.”

Dani stared. “Reward me? With what? Because I only accept books or food.”

The flicker of irritation on his face suggested that Danika actually speaking was not part of his brilliant script. But he recovered smoothly enough. “There’s food.” He smiled. “Or there will be, if you let me take you to dinner.”

Dani shook her head sadly and turned to Sorcha. “Do you think this ever works? It must, mustn’t it, for them to continue?”

Sorcha managed to inject a bucketload of disgust into a single sigh, which was a skill Dani had always envied. “Maybe. Or maybe they’re just not clever enough to make the connection between interrupting women and never, ever being voluntarily touched by one.”

The man jolted, a scowl twisting his flawless brow. “Hang on,” he snapped, “are you talking about me?”

“It’s quite obvious that we are,” Dani told him gently.

The blond spluttered in outrage for a few moments before deploying a dazzling “Fat fucking slut,” and storming away.

“Oh dear,” Dani sighed. “He thinks I’m a fat slut. I might die of a broken heart.”

Sorcha rolled her eyes.

The voice in Zafir Ansari’s ear murmured, “What are you thinking about?”

“How much I want you.”

“Then have m—”

Zaf paused the audiobook, the sound from his single earbud cutting out. Sometimes, it was possible to read while he was working. This scene was not one of those times.

He unplugged the earbuds and wrapped them around his phone, shoving both into his pocket. All the while, he kept a sharp eye on the door of the Echo building, scowling when one reed-thin boy, wearing what looked like pajamas under his hoodie, tried to skulk past without holding up his ID card like everyone else.

“Oi. You.” Like most things Zaf said, the words came out as an irritable rumble. “Get over here.”

The kid stopped walking and held up his hands, which were currently filled by a phone and . . . a bagel. “I can’t reach my ID,” he said apologetically, and made to keep walking, as if that would be o-fucking-kay.

“Get. Over. Here,” Zaf repeated. Then he stood up, which tended to make people listen to him, since he was a former rugby union flanker.

Eyes widening, the kid swallowed and approached like a scolded puppy.

“Now,” Zaf said patiently, “put your crap on the desk.”

Both phone and bagel were glumly dropped.

“Well, would you look at that? Hands free.” One eye still on the door, where the morning rush had slowed to a trickle, Zaf ordered, “I.D.”

Huffing and puffing, the kid checked a thousand pockets before producing the student I.D. that said he probably wasn’t here to nick a dead body or steal explosive gas. “I’m going to be late,” he muttered as he handed it over.

“Not my problem.” Zaf took the card and flashed it against the automated checker on his desk. “You know what I could do? I could make every last one of you line up while I ran you all through the system. But I’m a nice guy.” Not strictly true, but he also wasn’t a complete prick. “So I use my eyeballs instead. Easy for you, easy for me. Unless you don’t put the card in front of my eyeballs. Then it’s not so easy, since I don’t have X-ray vision. Let me show you something.” Card verified, Zaf held it up by its blue lanyard, stamped with the university logo. “You know where this goes? Right around your neck. Then you don’t have to choose between holding your bagel and pissing me off. Sound good?”

“I can’t put it around my neck,” the kid spluttered. “I’ll look like a dick.”

“You’re wearing Adventure Time pajamas to a lab, mate. You already look like a dick, and in five minutes’ time your professor will tell you so.”

“I—what?” He looked down. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”

“Come here.” Zaf slung the lanyard over the boy’s messy hair. “Now piss off.”

With a few glares and muttered comments, off he pissed.

Then a slow, sarcastic clap started to Zaf’s right, which was all it took for him to realize that his niece had entered the building. He turned to face her, his standard bad mood evaporating. “Fluffy! What are you doing here?”

She widened her kohl-rimmed eyes in warning, jerking her head pointedly at the group of girls behind her.

Zaf cleared his throat and fought the twitch of his lips. “Sorry. Fatima, I mean.” He gave the girls a little wave. “Hello, Fatima’s friends.”

“Will you relax?” she whispered. “You’re so embarrassing.”

“I was aiming for mortifying. I’ll have to try harder.”

She growled at him like a little lion and turned to wave off the girls. “I’ll meet you upstairs, okay?” When they nodded and melted away, she turned back to him. “I see now why you chose this job. You get to bitch at people on a professional basis.”

“Dream come true,” Zaf said dryly, and sat down. Tucked behind the tall security desk was the table he actually used for work. He tapped his computer to bring up the time . . .

Not that he was watching the clock for anyone in particular. He had absolutely no reason to do that.

“You look tired,” Fluff was saying. “Mum reckons you run yourself ragged and you’ll regret it in your old age.”

“Add it to the list. And I don’t look tired, I look mysterious.”

“Mysterious like a zombie,” Fatima said.

“You’re such a rude girl. Respect your elders.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, tilted her head mockingly, and simpered, “Please, dearest Chacha, sleep eight hours a night instead of writing charity letters or whatever it is you do, and maybe you will not be at work looking like a dead thing, inshallah.”

She was just like her father. The thought was bittersweet. “I’ll think about it. Why are you here? There’s nothing wrong, is there?” In the months since Fatima had enrolled, Zaf had only caught glimpses of her on campus from afar. He usually pantomimed his best Embarrassing Uncle routine, and she usually skulked away while shooting daggers in his direction—but now here she was, in his building. A kernel of anxiety skittered within his chest, always ready and waiting to blow. His Protective Uncle routine was even more intense than the Embarrassing Uncle one.

But Fatima rolled her eyes—she had a minor eye-rolling addiction—and sighed, “No, Chacha. Nothing is wrong. I just moved a class around to fit in Level 1 Punjabi.”

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