Wonderful news! My new novel, The Protector is now available on Amazon! Unfortunately, we’re currently having trouble with Barnes and Noble accepting the file (just technical stuff), and it’s going to be a little longer until the book shows up there. But hopefully it’ll be sooner rather than later!
Since today is The Protector‘s official release day, I wanted to share with you the first full two chapters of the novel! This is where the main character, Elizabeth, first meets Layne, and involves a lot of joking between Elizabeth and her dad, and then some heated discussions between Elizabeth and Layne…because (and this isn’t really a spoiler!), Elizabeth does not want a bodyguard. 🙂
So you can read the first two chapters below, and get The Protector on Amazon! 🙂
Chapter 1: Close Call
It was the day of my accident that my father hired the bodyguard.
I remember feeling the car shudder all around me unexpectedly as the sleek black SUV hit my SMART car’s rear. I’d glanced in my rearview mirror, at the driver with the meaty, black-gloved hands on the steering wheel, the impressive, impassive sunglasses blocking out any emotion in his eyes, his thin lips in a tight frown as he laid into the gas pedal and slammed into me again, so fast that if I hadn’t been watching the SUV ram into me, I never would have thought such a big, bulky vehicle could move so quickly.
I don’t remember much after that except spinning and spinning, my head whipped against the unyielding window so hard that I saw stars and then darkness. And then there was this gigantic, metallic crunch that I’ll probably be hearing in my nightmares for the rest of my life.
When I woke up in the hospital, my father was hovering over me. Alexander Grayson, a staggeringly tall and usually intimidating (well, to anyone but me) man doesn’t hover. But he was that day, his handsome face contorted in a grimace of pain as he stared down at me, brown eyes wide and actually tear-filled. He was wearing his usual designer suit because he’d probably come right from the office, and his shoulder-length salt and pepper hair was swept back in a loose ponytail. I teased him about that ponytail all the time, which I think just made him wear it more. His eyes glittered as he took a quavering breath, and then I exhaled with a sigh, blinking as my eyes adjusted, and the boring white tiled hospital ceiling came into focus.
“Hi, Dad,” I croaked, then immediately wished I hadn’t spoken as my sides squeezed and my lungs ached like I’d inhaled a gallon of glass shards. Everything hurt like a sonofabitch.
“Elizabeth?” My dad seemed to crumple as he kneeled on one knee beside me, and then my father was really crying, bright, shining tears that snaked their way down the smooth skin of his face, getting caught in his trim mustache and tiny beard that—he insisted, much to my chagrin—made him look handsome. “God, I thought this was it, sweetheart—I thought you were going to…going to…” He trailed off, sinking down to both knees by the side of the bed and gripping my hand so tightly, I wondered if he’d bruise my fingers. His eyes were fierce, flashing with a light I rarely saw in them, then, almost a red shimmer. He growled, uncharacteristically low and savage: “I’m going to get those fuckers who did this to you.”
I might have a dirty mouth, but I hate to tell you this: I most certainly inherited it from my mother. I don’t think my father would cuss out a mass murderer. To the best of my knowledge, I was pretty certain I’d never heard him use an expletive in my entire life.
He…wasn’t really acting normal.
I sat up, then, which might not have been the best idea. My head spun like a very sadistic carnival ride that won’t let you off, complete with flashing lights and stars sharpening their points on the corners of my vision. I blinked, tried to swallow. “Dad, it’s okay—please don’t worry. I’m fine,” I lied to him, swinging my bare legs out from under the hospital sheet and over the edge of the bed. In the background, machines began to beep in warning, obnoxious bursts of electronic protest, but I pushed myself up and stood anyway, trying to prove the point to him that I was “fine.”
My father had leapt up the moment I did, and was steadying me with a strong hand at my elbow, but even though he gripped me tightly, it’s mostly because I’m stubborn beyond belief that the floor didn’t rush up to meet me. I ran a hand that was hooked up to an IV through my dirty blonde hair. It was down and around my shoulders, sweeping against my back in long, lank strands, and I was wishing I could find a ponytail holder somewhere. That was the last thought I had before black dots started poking around the edge of my vision, beginning to swarm.
Even I knew when I was overdoing it.
“So how cutthroat is that seafood business getting?” I joked weakly as I sat back down on the bed. I’d done enough for the moment. I slowly became aware that I was only wearing one of those incredibly sexy (hah!) hospital gowns the color of bad milk, and I absent-mindedly threw the scratchy, starched sheet of the hospital bed over my shoulders, drawing it close. “Dad, that guy who rear-ended me…I think he purposefully rammed me,” I told my father, searching his eyes.
Again, something dangerous glittered behind his dark brown irises, but he schooled his features, adopting his usual indulgent grin that he always got when he was about to do something that would make me furious. Like, you know, the time that he told me I couldn’t go to college across the country because I’d “be in danger” from “everything.”
My father has always been too overprotective, never with any sort of reason. And it’s not as if I’ve not proven I can take care of myself. I’m a tough lady, but I never seemed tough enough to face all of the dangers my father supposed were in the world and out to get me.
I guess he maybe had a tiny point, however, since my car had just been rammed by a stranger for no apparent reason.
“Did they catch the guy?” I asked after a long moment, when my father said nothing, his jaw flexing as he pivoted back on his heels and stared up at the ceiling.
“Elizabeth, sweetheart,” said Dad, shifting from foot to foot then. He was so terrible at delivering bad news with his sad frown, and his tiny mustache drooping a little to go along with the frown.
“Dad, I can handle it,” I promised him, softening my voice as I drew the sheet closer. “If the cops didn’t catch the guy, I’m sure they will. He’s not dead, is he?” I asked, then, cold moving over my skin in waves that gave me goosebumps. Yeah, the guy had rammed me, but I didn’t want him to be dead. I didn’t remember what had happened after the second ramming. Maybe his SUV had flown off the freeway into a guardrail, or…
“Sweetheart, I think it’s important to start at the beginning.” He cleared his throat, throwing out his hands impressively, as if he was on a stage or behind a podium. “As you well know, Grayson Seafood is the envy of the world,” said my father then, and I sat back with raised eyebrows. He was taking the long-winded approach, using his very particular voice that he always rolled out at company holiday parties when he had to make a speech about how great the past year had been for the bottom line. And the fishermen and warehouse workers and packers who worked for my dad were usually wasted at that point—as would anyone be at a work holiday party with a very generous catered banquet and open bar—and would cheer him through his dangerously long-winded speech about how Grayson Seafood was to be envied, and they were the biggest packers of seafood in the world and people across the globe were eating our fish every night, and…you get the picture. Boring, feel-good stuff that would be applauded at the end as more booze was consumed in celebration at the amazing year they’d had.
But I’d just been in a car accident. And as the daughter of the founder of Grayson Seafood, I was well acquainted with just how envied the family business was. A little too well acquainted, considering how many of my father’s speeches I’d had to suffer through in my lifetime.
“Dad, what happened to the driver?” I asked pointedly. He frowned a little with a sigh—he’d just been getting started, and if there’s anything my father loves, it’s a good speech—but then his lips tightened.
“Well, to put it plainly, the overseas fishing moguls have it out for us, sweetheart,” he said with a frown, spreading his hands. “They’re targeting me, and since you’re my only family, they’re targeting you.”
My father was a bit of a conspiracy theorist, the kind who didn’t believe we’d actually landed on the moon, that the assassination of JFK was some sort of government murder, and that there have been a ton of UFO landings that the feds don’t want us to know about. But this was pushing the envelope a bit, even for him.
“Since when is the seafood business as bad as the mob?” I chuckled, trying to turn it into a joke. I grimaced as I shifted my weight and then wished I hadn’t. My tailbone was sore—how had that even happened? I sighed and leaned back on my wrists, staring up at my father with a long-suffering expression.
He took this as license to continue his speech.
“The seafood business has a long and illustrious history of being just as cutthroat as—” began my father, but then he saw the look on my face. He swallowed and shook his head. “Sweetheart, you know that we turned profits last year that were almost double every other seafood company in the world.”
“Dad, I love you—but I hate to remind you that I’m not in the seafood business. So why would these supposed ‘overseas fishing moguls,’” I sighed and made air quotes, “be targeting me? Frankly, why would they be targeting anyone at all? These aren’t perfect diamonds or everlasting oil wells—they’re profits made from bulgy-eyed tuna and swordfish,” I told him with a shake of my head. I glanced at the wall clock over his shoulder and felt the icy fingers of dread choke me a little. “Crap, Dad—we have to finish this later. I’m late for practice!” I struggled to stand again, even as the black points began to swarm at the edges of my vision. “And if I’m late again, Amelia is going to kill me, and I did just totally survive a near-death experience, so I don’t want another quite so soon,” I told him with as much of a straight face as I could muster.
My coping skills consist of sarcasm and humor. And that’s pretty much it. Which is probably why I’ve never been able to have a completely serious conversation with a girlfriend to save my life.
Which is probably why I’m single.
“Honey, you’re not letting me explain…” My father looked like he was in actual pain as he held out his hands to me with a grimace, waving them to get me to lay back down on the hospital bed. “Someone tried to actually kill you today. I really don’t think you’re understanding the gravity of the situation, and you’re really not reacting like—”
“I’m a big girl, Dad” I sighed, straightening as I stood and winced. Everything began to spin, but after a moment, the spinning subsided. Which was about as good as I was going to get, it seemed. “You know I love you, Dad. But I think you have a tendency to believe I’m still five years old and need my rocking horse fixed,” I breathed out and smiled at him softly, shaking my head. “But I’m thirty-three years old,” I reminded my father with another shake of my head as I squeezed his hands. “And I have my own life, and you need to stop worrying about me, or you’re going to develop an ulcer. The guy probably rammed me because of my rainbow bumper stickers or something. I honestly can’t think of a single reason why overseas fishing moguls would even know I existed, let alone would want to make me sleep with the fishes. Oh, God, that was such a terrible joke…” I sat back down on the bed, holding my side and taking small, panting breaths. I tried to focus on the problem at hand. “Does Amelia know I was in the accident?”
“The whole orchestra knows—they sent you those flowers,” said my father, waving his hand in the direction of a few dozen roses on a side table with an impatient shake of his head. “And the doctors say that if you take it easy, you’ll still be able to make your concert on Friday.”
“I’d better,” I groaned, casting my eyes heavenward. “That one piece has been such a bastard, and I’ve spent far too much time practicing, and put in too much work not to—”
“Elizabeth,” said my father sternly, then. Dad’s never been very good at stern, and the older I get, the mellower he becomes. So this was surprising.
“Yes?” I asked heavily.
“Today, because of me, you were almost killed.” His eyes were so pain-filled, I wanted to give him a tight hug, but I sat where I was, biting my lip. “And that’s…that’s unthinkable to me that harm could have come to you because of me. And it doesn’t matter if you think so or not, but the fishing business has gotten very cutthroat these past few years…” He didn’t look at me as he was saying it. He was examining the ring that my mother gave him, years ago, the blood-red garnet flashing with a real, raw fire against the pale skin of his hand under the sickly fluorescent hospital lights. “I couldn’t bear to lose you, not like this. So, I’ve taken matters into my own hands.” He glanced up at me, his eyes narrowed, and his mouth in a thin, hard line.
That wasn’t ominous at all. I swallowed, frowning. “Dad?”
“They’re discharging you from the hospital now,” he said quickly, glancing back over his shoulder toward the hospital room door with that uncanny way he had. No nurse had come by, but he knew I’d be discharged soon? That’s my dad, psychic extraordinaire. “I’ll take you back to my house, not your apartment…I wouldn’t hear of anything else—it’s closer, and you can rest for a little while, borrow one of my cars,” he said, raising his hand as I began to protest. “And then we’ll discuss the measures that need to be taken to keep you safe.”
“Measures?” I practically squeaked, then began to shake my head adamantly. “Dad, no measures—”
“Ah, Ms. Grayson, it’s good to see you up!” said the nurse, then, striding confidently into the room with a bright smile. She was very pretty, with curly blonde hair swept up into a ponytail and a wide, comforting smile. I’d just been through a major accident—I shouldn’t have been noticing how pretty she was. But I did anyway. She tapped a pen onto her clipboard and flipped through a few pages before glancing back up with another grin. “Let’s see if you’re all right, then we’ll see about getting you discharged.”
My father gave me a smug little smile, and I groaned with a grin, glancing at the ceiling. He was right again. I’m telling you, psychic extraordinaire.
“One last thing,” said my dad, and he looked even more nervous about this one. “Um…your car was totaled. Smashed like a bug, actually—you know how I told you about SMART cars not exactly being that safe in accidents—”
I sighed, rubbing at the spot between my eyes with a suddenly tired palm. “Just great.” My poor, adorable, snub-nosed baby. I’d loved that little car.
But then what my dad said next made me forget everything else:
“—And remember, honey, your violin was in the back seat?”
I stared at him, eyes wide, all of the blood draining out of my face.
“So it’s…I mean the violin was smashed into splinters,” said my father miserably, holding his breath as he watched me.
I felt a lot of things in that moment. Waves of raw emotion moving through me as quickly as a storm.
To be perfectly fair, to be a violinist in the Boston Philharmonic, you tend to have a lot of violins. And I do—I have about five or six. But not all of them are concert quality, and I’m going to be honest here: that violin sung for me like no other instrument I’ve ever held.
It felt like losing a limb.
I finally picked an emotion to settle on.
“Did they catch the guy?” I asked with a long, slow blink, the kind a crocodile makes before it strikes. I think that took Dad by surprise. He’d been bracing himself, I think, for a nice long bit of yelling and expletives by yours truly. That I was calm and reasonable seemed to shock my father who stood there with his mouth open and slowly shook his head.
“Great,” I grunted as the nurse poked and prodded my middle. I began to grin slowly, a little like the Grinch. “Because I’m going to find that sonofabitch who destroyed my violin, and I’m going to kill him with these bare hands.”
“That’s my girl,” said Dad then, with a wide, toothy grin.
Chapter 2: Bodyguard
I didn’t look like hell. I looked worse than hell. Like a cheap, warmed-over version that’s seen much, much better days.
I flipped the passenger side visor back up with a grimace, taking slow, shallow breaths because it was still hurting a bit too much to make sudden movements. I had so much on my mind that even as I looked out of the car window, I didn’t even see the old buildings passing us by—I was just thinking of a seemingly unending list of things that Needed To Be Done. For example, I really needed to take some more painkillers, and then I had to call Verity’s Violin Shop down by the art museum, and I had to make sure that—
“Would madam like the temperature a bit cooler?” asked Ben, my father’s chauffeur, shaking me from my thoughts. He looked a little pained that I had to be riding up with him up in the front seat, but the nurses at the hospital seemed to think that sliding into the back seat of a limo wouldn’t be good for my stitches.
And yes, Dad has a town car and a few retro cars, but he insisted—much to my chagrin—that we drive back to his house in his limo because people would actually notice if someone tried to rear end it. Which, I suppose, he did have a point. It’d be impossible for an assailant to casually rear end a car about as long as an ocean liner.
“No, the temperature’s great, Ben,” I said, cracking him a lopsided smile. He still looked pained, his bright blue eyes surrounded with worried wrinkles, but put his gaze back on the road, flexing his leather gloves against the steering wheel. I tried not to think about the driver of the SUV who’d rammed me. He’d been wearing leather gloves, too.
“So what’s this surprise you have cooked up for me, Dad?” I asked back into the interior of the limo. My father sat in the very center of the leather back seat, his walking cane between his legs, and his hands resting on the top of the cane as if he was ready to break out into a music video. He was grinning widely and that’s the exact sort of grin he gave me when he told me I couldn’t date until I was seventeen (at the time, he hadn’t even known that what I really wanted to date were girls…).
So that sort of grin always worries me.
“You’ll see!” he practically chirped.
I sighed and slumped against the seat as we rounded the familiar, graceful curve in the road, and the Grayson mansion came towering into view.
Our family has been in possession of that impressive, sprawling stone structure for about two hundred years, which goes to show you that certain things (like enjoying living in something that looks like a castle) run in the family. It has actual turrets (one of which I took over when I was a kid and wanted to play “knights, dragons and princesses” with the maids’ kids. I was always the knight), big wooden doors that would look more at home in a castle in Europe than in a mansion outside of Boston, and a big garden of roses surrounding the whole thing. It was June, so the riot of roses were in bloom.
As we parked out front on the gravel drive and I opened the door, the wild scent of red and pink spilled into my nose as I inhaled deeply. There was birdsong spouting from some of the ornamental trees, and the fountain out front—featuring a creepy little naked cherubim with a wry smile and tiny wings—was bubbling happily as the sun shone down, touching me with warmth.
In short, it seemed like everything was right with the world. And I guess, in some ways, it was. I’d just narrowly avoided becoming goo, smashed between my tiny car and a concrete barrier. I’d say that, all things considered, I was pretty lucky.
But it was also pretty…well, unnerving that I had no idea where that attack had come from.
And I had absolutely no idea if it would happen again—something I was desperately trying to not think about.
“Madam should really have let me get the door,” said Ben, his voice strained as he all but sprinted around the car to help me up and out of the passenger seat as I struggled to stand.
“Ben, you’re a peach, and I hope my dad realizes what an awesome guy he has in you,” I grunted, sweat breaking out on my forehead as pain ripped through me, Ben’s hand at my elbow as he helped me upright. “I’m just not used to having a chauffeur anymore, I’m sorry,” I told him taking a quavering breath. “You’re always been too nice to me,” I grinned up at him fondly.
He returned my smile, but shook his head. “Madam does not look well,” he said succinctly, holding on to my elbow as I threatened to fall backwards a little. I wrested my elbow out of his hand gently, smoothed the front of my skirt and took a deep breath as my father folded himself out of the back seat and glided over to the both of us, his cane crunching against the gravel as sharply as his Armani shoes.
“I’m fine, Ben,” I promised the hovering chauffeur with another smile. I’d known Ben my whole life—this is the guy who’d taken me to every violin practice I’d ever had as a kid, every school concert, then every string quartet concert when I’d joined one in high school. He’d waited patiently for me during endless music lessons, always had a bit of wise advice or kindness to give the gangly, awkward kid who was way more obsessed with music than with people.
“Alice probably has lunch on the table,” said my father, and Ben nodded, sliding my crutches out of the limo, handing them to my father, then hopping back into the driver’s seat to take the limo to the garage. My father’s hand at my elbow replaced Ben’s, and then he was helping me steer toward the sprawling porch with its columns and marble and wide open front door where Alice stood, her hands on her hips, and her plump mouth in a round O of consternation.
“Elizabeth Grayson, what sort of trouble did you get yourself into this time?” she asked, striding forward and all but picking me up as she swung her arm around my middle to steady me, and propel me up the stairs. Alice is a marvel: the cook and housekeeper and, now, only maid for my father. She also volunteers at about a thousand charitable organizations, sews costumes for the local children’s theater and still manages to find time to garden, her passion. Her long brown hair, now sprinkled with shocks of gray, was drawn up into the braid that was looped around her head, and she wore her uniform of choice: jeans and a flowy peasant blouse.
“I got into an accident, Al,” I told her as she helped me up the last set of steps and into the house itself, my father bringing my crutches behind us. “It wasn’t my fault,” I amended quickly as she began to protest.
“Al, can you bring some coffee and possibly a baked good for our recently hospitalized Elizabeth?” asked my father, his mouth twitching with a grin as Alice, again, was about to go on a tirade after my statement. She opened and shut her mouth, sighed with a very longsuffering roll of her eyes and turned, bustling toward the kitchens to do just that.
“Oh, so’s you know, that woman’s already here! I put her in your study!” Al called before rounding the hallway corner.
“That woman?” I asked, one brow up. My father grimaced, shaking his head, putting a gentle arm around my shoulders as he began to help steer me through the foyer. It’s an impressive looking foyer. All black and white marble tile, and pale blue walls and Greek busts of attractive women on pedestals. My dad is kind of classical in style, hence the creepy looking cherub in the fountain outside.
“I don’t suppose you’d wait in the hall while I greeted her?” asked my father in a soft murmur as we approached his study. The warm mahogany door was open, and I could already smell the scent of pipe tobacco and the old, deeply comforting aroma of thousands and thousands of books.
“I want to know what this is about,” I sighed, all of the fight leaving me as the pain began to burn through my muscles again. I felt like an old woman as I considered the fact that, pretty soon, I’d eat a slice of coffee cake and then be able to take my pain pills. They wouldn’t come a moment too soon—every inch of my body ached with an intense kind of pain I’d never felt before.
My father sighed too, for a long moment, casting his eyes heavenward, probably thinking to himself that there were other parents in the world who had had much less head-strong kids. “All right,” he said then, in a normal tone of voice.
He helped me through the study door, the sunlight spilling through the tall ceiling-to-floor length windows with their many panes of glass, the leather binding on some of the older books soaking up the sunshine, the globe in the mahogany corner turning—an odd thing to notice, I realize, but I only caught a glimpse of that, because my eyes were drawn, instead, to the woman who’d set the thing spinning.
She was tall, impressively so, taller than my father, even. She could have played for women’s basketball was the thought that asked for attention in the back of my head, but I hardly even registered that. She was muscular, the kind of easy muscle resting beneath her jeans and leather jacket and too-tight red t-shirt that made me think she was a gym rat or maybe a trainer. She looked like she worked for her body, and she enjoyed showing it off, which—I have to admit—I enjoyed looking at it. She had a sharp, angular face that was handsome, devastatingly so, but not beautiful. The lines of her chin, the planes of her face, were too hard, like she’d seen too much pain. A perpetual worry line from frowning too often stood pronounced on her otherwise smooth forehead. Her thick black hair was spiked and curved forward—total butch—and her hazel eyes, too hard to pin down if they were mostly brown or mostly green or mostly blue, immediately glanced my way. There was a small smile on her lips, the only soft thing about her, as she put her hands in her pockets, cocking her left hip in our direction and widening her stance as if she owned the place.
God, she was gorgeous. My mouth was suddenly dry as I leaned against my father, taking in this magnetic creature and realizing that I really looked like hell.
Great. What a lovely way to meet a devastatingly attractive woman: stitched up and barely alive and looking like a warmed over, cheap version of hell.
“Ms. O’Connell, it’s good to see you again,” purred my father, using the tone of voice that piles on the charm like a five layer cake, the tone he always pulls out when he’s at the office. He helped me over to one of the two high-backed leather chairs in front of his too-big carved wooden desk. It was an antique, and he’d once told me when I was a kid that Ben Franklin had used it for writing his letters. I don’t know if I quite believe that, but it’s a pretty big, solid thing that I often pretended was a boat, and I was its captain, when my father was away on business trips.
Dad straightened and inclined his head, gesturing toward the other leather chair to the woman standing in the corner. Ms. O’Connell. My breathing was coming too fast, almost panting like the kind of reaction a cartoon wolf does as he first ogles a gorgeous hand-painted dame. Who was this woman?
Her smile grew, and she stalked over to the chair, flopping down in it with a graceless ease. My eyes were drawn to her with a magnetic pull—I couldn’t stop staring at her. She had this aura of immense power and grace, like maybe she was a dancer as well as being a gym rat. Normally women who work out a ton (and I’ve dated a few—I know) have too many muscles to pull off graceful. Oh, strong they’ve got in spades, but graceful is a whole other ball game.
And this woman was winning at both.
“It’s good to see you again, sir. It’s nice to meet you, miss,” she said, her mouth rolling up lazily at the corners. But there was nothing indolent about her eyes. They seemed to pierce me, pinning me in place as she stared at me. It’s as if she was assessing me and she reached her assessment in a heartbeat or so. She glanced back to my father who sat behind the desk, setting his cane against the side of it.
“Elizabeth, I’d like you to meet Layne O’Connell,” he said, nodding to her as he crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in his leather desk chair. “Layne, this is my daughter, Elizabeth Grayson.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Layne repeated, one brow up, a wide, easy smile on her face, the kind that makes you want to smile back. But I was too tense for that. There was something going on here, something that—despite the unspeakably attractive person sitting next to me—I was probably going to dislike.
“Likewise,” I told her, but I was watching my father out of the corner of my eye. He had his fingers crossed on his stomach now as he leaned back.
“Elizabeth,” he said then softly, delicately, like he was about to tell me a very bad piece of news as he gestured toward Layne, sitting to my left.
And he was definitely about to tell me a bad piece of news.
He cleared his throat and then pasted on his most dazzling smile. “Layne is your new bodyguard.”
I stared at him flatly, then turned to look at Layne, who was still smiling, but now she was watching for my reaction, her eyebrows up as she rolled her shoulders back, her head to the side as she considered me, a bit of her black hair sweeping in front of her eyes like an even more heart-throb-y female version of James Dean.
I could never have predicted this.
I’ve got a temper on me, a lovely bit of inheritance from my mother, and sometimes I can’t help my first reaction.
Which was this:
“Absolutely not,” I said, standing quickly, the leather chair squeaking in protest as it was shoved out behind me, its feet scraping against the old wood floor. “Absolutely not, Dad” I said, shaking my head emphatically. “Are you kidding me?” I practically yelled. I was spluttering, but the anger ripping through me was a pleasant change from paying far too much attention to the pain I was in, so I stuck with it. Layne was glancing up at me in amusement, her hazel eyes flashing as she tried to keep the smile from showing on her mouth. And failed.
“Elizabeth, please,” said my father, eyes round as he gestured quickly for me to take my seat again. An action I had absolutely no intention of doing.
“You didn’t even consult me—you already hired her?” Smoke was practically spiraling out of my nose and ears, but I kept going. “How could you make such an important decision without me? I’m sorry, Layne,” I told her then, pivoting on my better leg, the one that didn’t have the stitches in the thigh. I stared down at her, my hands on my hips. She lounged back, meeting my gaze with a single elegant brow raised. She could have looked at me like that all day, but I was in no mood to be paying attention to anything below my waist, which was stirring in spite of myself. “I’m sure you’re wonderful,” I huffed, “and an excellent bodyguard, but we have no need of your services,” I said, all in a rush.
And then I sat back down, because the black pinpoints around my vision were starting to rush back.
“Layne, stay right where you are,” said my father, a stern quality beginning to leak into his words. I stared daggers at him, but he wasn’t looking at me—not directly. He was looking at Layne.
She shrugged, leaning farther back in the chair. She looked like she was lounging at a dance club and not at her new employer’s office, a fact I rather liked. But I wasn’t supposed to like anything about her.
My father knew how I felt about this.
And he’d gone ahead and done it anyway.
Once, when I was a teenager, my father had insisted I get a bodyguard. I’d refused rather emphatically, with all the drama a teenager can muster. After several long, drawn-out arguments (really the only time I can ever remember my father and I having a shouting match), he’d backed off.
I was already the weirdo in school, arriving with a chauffeur, and having a bodyguard hang around me was going to ruin any chance I had of getting even a single friend. And eventually I’d outgrown most of my awkwardness, and I had gotten friends. But it would have been impossible to do with a secret-services type man or woman following me around in tinted glasses, a serious frown and a sidearm.
I was, and will always be, grateful for the upbringing I had. I was a rich kid. I know that in the grand scheme of the world, that’s pretty darn lucky. But I’d had my share of sacrifices, too, my freedom being the foremost of them. Growing up being constantly watched, under lock and key and being fretted over like you’re some sort of emperor’s daughter makes you value your autonomy more than anything in the world. And, to top it all off, I purposefully had wanted to make my own way in the world, and I’d worked my ass off to get where I was, one of the violinists in the Boston Philharmonic. Which I’d like to point out is a really difficult job to get.
In short, my life was complicated enough without adding a bodyguard on top of it. I valued my autonomy more than anything else—something I’d worked years at achieving completely and fully—and I loved my freedom just a little bit too much to have someone following me around all day, hovering at my shoulder.
I couldn’t imagine my world with a bodyguard in it. It’d be demeaning. Demoralizing. Frustrating. Terrible. I would be followed everywhere, have to answer to someone else when making any minute decision. I wasn’t answerable to anyone anymore. I was headstrong, stubborn, fiercely independent.
I couldn’t imagine being any other way.
“No,” I told my father.
“Yes,” said my father, his brows raised. “Elizabeth, please see reason,” he hissed then, leaning forward, his eyes flashing dangerously. “You were almost just killed.” Pain passed over his face, and I think he was weighing whether to say the next part or not. But then he said it anyway: “and I doubt that a single foiled attempt will stop whoever’s after us. There are going to be more attempts. And your life is in danger.”
I took a deep breath and let it out, doing my best to see reason. My father, of course, was right. I was already looking over my shoulder too much, and the “accident” had just happened to me. Yes, it wasn’t my fault and really had nothing to do with me that someone was after me—it was because of my father, something he couldn’t really help either.
But it certainly didn’t stop the fact that someone was after me.
“What about you, Dad?” I asked then, a little of the fight gone from my voice. “Don’t you need a bodyguard, too?”
“I already have one,” he replied mildly, not letting his gaze waver from mine.
“Really?” I’d not seen any new employees around, and shouldn’t bodyguards be with the person they were guarding pretty darn often? But that was neither here nor there. My father had a bodyguard, and he hadn’t even been attacked yet.
At least, not that I knew of.
I glanced sidelong at Layne.
“I’m looking forward to working with you.” She said it in a droll, almost sly manner, and her lips, twitching at the corners, were now completely incapable of masking her insolent expression. She leaned back again, her head to the side, one brow up as she chuckled a little. “I think we’ll make a great team,” is what she said, but the words had a bit of a sarcastic bite to them.
I opened and shut my mouth. I thought about the man who’d rammed me from behind, his leather gloves, the lack of any human emotion on his perfectly blank face, like he felt nothing as he tried to kill me.
I thought about how he was still out there. How, at any time, he could appear when I least expected it…
“For how long?” I asked, trying to make my voice hard. “For how long would we have to…to require Ms. O’Connell’s services?”
The joy—and triumph—that passed over my father’s face was unmistakable.
“For as long as it takes us to figure out who was behind it, and bring them to justice,” said my father, then, masking his face back to its carefully neutral expression. Layne, beside me, made a little snort in the back of her throat, and I glanced at her sidelong, but her expression was carefully neutral, too.
Bring them to justice? I shivered a little. There had been such an edge to those words.
All right, then. Yes, I valued my autonomy more than anything in the world. But I also wanted to keep living the life I’d built for myself.
I wasn’t ready to die just yet.
“Well,” I said with a very long sigh. “It doesn’t seem like I have much choice in the matter.”
“Wonderful—just wonderful!” my father practically sang, clapping his hands together slowly with a triumphant smile. “Ms. O’Connell, I am delighted to have secured your services. I can finally sleep at night again.” He leaned back in his chair and breathed out slowly with a wide grin.
I glanced at the magnetic woman sitting next to me, then.
Layne straightened, her head to the side a little as she offered me a hand.
My eyes widened a little as I glanced down in surprise. She had long fingers; a broad palm; short, carefully trimmed nails. I took her hand. I guess I was expecting a strong grasp, and I think that if she’d shaken hands with my father, it would have been strong, the clasp of palm and fingers. But it was gentle, now, as her fingers encircled mine, sliding around my wrist like she was holding something fragile, that could break.
Her fingertips were so warm, they were almost hot as they pressed against my skin.
She bent her head, then. I watched in shock as Layne O’Connell leaned forward at the waist with that utterly magnetic grace, bent her head, and brushed her warm, soft lips against the back of my hand.
“I look forward to working with you,” she said, her voice low, almost a rumbling growl in the back of her throat as she gazed up at me through long, dark lashes, her hazel eyes never leaving mine, seeming to shimmer between blue and green and brown and back again.
“I have coffee!” said Al, just then, bumping the door with her hip as she pushed an antique teacart into the room, laden with still-warm blueberry turnovers (which happen to be my favorite) and a carafe of coffee. She had a big grin on her comforting face as she glanced quickly from Layne to me, back to Layne again.
My father stood, still smiling hugely.
And Layne dropped my hand only after a very long moment, almost too long of a moment for any sort of normal greeting. Her fingers had been so warm against mine.
The softness of her lips against my skin was an imprint that made my blood burn.
Despite my initial reservations, I guess I was looking forward to working with her, too.