An excerpt from Buildup: Pulling Strings

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Nick kept a careful eye on his new consultant over dinner, trying to get a feel for the man. He'd had to take him on trust; there was no alternative under the circumstances. That didn't mean that Nick was willing to let him remain a cypher.

Justin Hobb didn't talk much, preferring to listen to the other people at the table. When people addressed him directly, he was polite but withdrawn, not encouraging further interaction. Nick couldn't tell whether it was natural reserve, general caution in a new situation, or simple tiredness.

When Monica started flirting with him, it seemed to take him a little while to even realise what was going on. Then he very gently discouraged her, withdrawing just that little more in response to her than to others.

At least two out of three, Nick decided. Definitely tired, plus natural or cultivated reserve. And the man didn't like the idea of getting emotionally involved. There'd been a flash of something when Nick had shaken his hand, quickly and thoroughly repressed. Well, he couldn't blame the man for not wanting to get involved at any level other than doing a job.

The hacker was worth flirting with, even if Nick had more sense than to try it. Justin Hobb wasn't the type to turn heads -- deliberately so, no doubt. But he was good-looking in a quiet way, with an attractive face that was worth a second look. The stereotypically black clothing was expensive and well cut, and draped over his slim body in a flattering way. He wasn't that tall, but he carried himself perfectly upright, making the most of what height he had without being obvious about it.

The only obvious physical flaw was that Hobb bit his nails. That surprised Nick, given Hobb's self-possession, but perhaps it was a childhood habit he'd never broken.

"They break easily, and if I don't have scissors handy..." Hobb said quietly, to him alone.

"Sorry. Didn't mean to stare. It just surprised me."

Hobb gave him a quick smile. "You didn't stare. But others have, so when you looked and then looked away quickly, I could guess." His smile turned slightly cynical. "Don't worry, you're not losing your touch. It's just that you have to be good at catching body language in my line of work, as well."

Nick smiled back. "That's reassuring to know." And yes, Hobb had been reassuring him as well as teasing him, going by the softer smile and slight nod he got in reply.

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