Authors: Christine Bell
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #General, #bodyguard, #bestseller, #guardian, #danger, #for hire, #ponzi scheme, #sexy, #protector, #USA today bestseller
Guardian for Hire
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 by Christine Bell. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Entangled Publishing, LLC
2614 South Timberline Road
Fort Collins, CO 80525
Visit our website at www.entangledpublishing.com.
Edited by Kerri-Leigh Grady
Cover design by Heather Howland
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-62266-330-9
Manufactured in the United States of America
First Edition January 2014
Other Books by Christine Bell
Wife for Hire
Down for the Count
Down and Dirty
Down the Aisle
Chaos (as C. O’Neil)
White Lie Christmas (with Riley Murphy)
Conned (as Chloe Cole)
For Allison. I couldn’t have done this one without you. Brainstorming FTW.
Sarabeth Lucking stared at her monitor without blinking, utter disbelief keeping the horror temporarily at bay.
Nico Stefanopoulis, alleged con man and principal player in the high-profile scandal that occurred at his couple’s retreat, The Healing Place, was found dead today in his Los Angeles penthouse apartment. LAPD has refused to comment on the cause of death, but the Times has learned that Stefanopoulis is not the only person involved in the notorious blackmailing scheme to have met with tragedy in recent weeks.
Her fleece hoodie, damp with sweat from that morning’s run, chilled against her skin, and she suppressed a shiver. There was no need to scroll down and read further. She knew the rest. First Liza. Then Marcel. Now Nico. It didn’t take a PhD to see the pattern.
Bracing her elbows on the desk in front of her, she buried her head in her hands. Tears pricked the back of her lids, but she blinked them back. She wouldn’t cry for that bastard. He’d ruined her life…
of their lives with his greed and dishonesty.
And now he was dead.
Salty droplets streaked down her cheeks and plunked onto the keyboard, skittering off the well-worn keys.
Damn it, Nico.
Her landline jangled, jarring her from her dark thoughts. When the story about the retreat broke a few months before, she’d had no choice but to change her personal number. Now, only four people had it, and she knew exactly which one of them was on the other end of the line. She slipped off her glasses and swiped at her eyes with the sleeve of her shirt.
“Are you okay?” Lindy demanded, concern coloring her usually peppy tone.
“I’m fine. I guess you saw, then.”
Lindy sighed. “Owen heard from Gavin last night, but I didn’t want to call and wake you. I figured it might be the last time you get to sleep in your own bed for a while.”
The silence crackled over the line, but Sarabeth refused to fill it.
She swallowed hard.
A growl of frustration preceded Lindy’s voice blasting over the line. “Damn it, I’m not asking this time. If you don’t let us do this, I’m coming there, tossing you into a giant sack, and dragging you back here with me. You can’t stay in Chicago. It’s not an option anymore.” Her friend blew out an exasperated sigh and her tone gentled. “I know this is hard, but you’ve got to try to look at this from my point of view. You want to call Marcel a fluke? Fine. Liza an odd coincidence? Whatever. But there’s no denying it now. The former employees are being picked off one by one. This is happening, girlfriend, and ducking your head in the sand could get you killed.”
The dull throbbing between her eyes radiated outward. “I wasn’t part of it. I didn’t do anything wrong. Maybe—”
“Maybe?” Lindy’s tone had gone from exasperated to shrill. “You might be willing to risk your life on a maybe, but I’m not. I only have a handful of friends in this world, and one of them is an eighty-year-old woman, so I’m afraid I can’t spare you. Get your bottom in gear. We’re getting you out of harm’s way.”
“I’ll think about it,” she mumbled.
“Nope, no time for thinking. Throw a suit and some undies in your purse and—”
“Lin, remember we’ve already agreed? I’m nothing like you.”
Silence crackled over the line before her friend responded cautiously. “Sure.”
“And that was good because?” Sarabeth prompted.
“There needs to be one sane person between us. I know, but—”
“No buts. I said I’ll think about it and I will. I’m not running off half-cocked with my underwear in my purse like some politician’s mistress after his wife comes home early from Tahoe.”
There was another long pause before Lindy’s guilt-laden voice came over the line. “Umkay, but, uh…while you’re thinking about it, you may wanna start packing. Gavin’s going to be there soon.”
She stifled a groan. Lindy and Owen’s friend Gavin McClintock was apparently some sort of security expert they’d been harping on her about since this whole mess had started. They wanted to hire him to protect her, but Sarabeth had flatly refused every time they’d brought it up. When Lindy got her mind set on something, though, she barreled ahead like a miniature steamroller. Sarabeth should’ve known this was coming.
“When you say ‘going to be here’ you mean Chicago, or…?”
“Like at your house. In an hour or so. Owen had him leave first thing this morning.”
“Aw, Jesus, Lin.” Perfect. A new layer of manure added to her already majorly crappy month.
“At least talk to him,” Lindy pleaded. “Listen to what he has to say. For me. Owen says he’s the best in the business, and if you let Gavin take care of you, I know everything will work out fine. I can feel it.”
Time to concede the battle and look ahead to the war. She’d talk to the guy, but that was as far as it was going. “Fine. But don’t get your hopes up. This is a meet and greet only. I’m not going anywhere until I’ve had a chance to think things through.”
“If something happened to you, I’d never forgive myself.”
Lindy’s voice was filled with regret, and the anger drained out of Sarabeth in a whoosh. Lindy and Owen were responsible for cracking The Healing Place con. The year before, Owen’s sister had been bamboozled out of three quarters of a million dollars by Nico, but no charges had stuck. Owen had made it priority number one to prove that Nico was a high-stakes career con man and see him punished to the full extent of the law. When Nico had opened The Healing Place couples retreat, Owen had hired Lindy to act as his wife so they could go undercover and find out if the business was a front for another con. Unbeknownst to Sarabeth, who was the couple’s therapist on staff, it was. She and Lindy had met at the retreat and became fast friends. In spite of all the drama that followed, they’d managed to stay that way, and Sarabeth couldn’t imagine her life without Lindy now.
“Don’t even go there. Just because you guys exposed Nico for the cheat he was doesn’t make you responsible for anything that followed. You did the right thing,” Sarabeth said.
If only that were true for her, as well.
She’d been so excited about the lucrative and possibly career-making opportunity Nico had presented, she hadn’t looked hard enough at the fine print. If she had, she would have known it was too good to be true.
Lindy sighed heavily into the phone. “I know that in my head, but in my heart, I can’t help but feel like I’m partly to blame for you being in danger. Please. Keep an open mind. For me. Once you listen to what he has to say, I know you’ll see it my way.”
She wasn’t sold, but agreed to hear the guy out. She and Lindy said their good-byes and she disconnected. There was nothing to do now but wait and see what this Gavin person proposed. She stared at the article on the screen for another long moment before x-ing out. Maybe things would be clearer after she glugged down her coffee and had a shower.
The hot water and caffeine combination did clear her head some, and when she emerged, it was with renewed energy and resolve. Nico had already stolen too much from her. She’d lost the job she never should have taken in the first place, her professional credibility was in the outhouse, and her nights were long and nearly sleepless. No way was she leaving her home and her business—or what was left of it, at any rate—on top of it.
She’d talked to Gavin McClintock on the phone once, after the second murder, and she hadn’t appreciated his know-it-all tone or overbearing attitude one bit. If the ex-military thug wanted to follow her around the city, maybe she’d consider it, but she wasn’t running away.
That settled, she went about her usual morning routine, preparing to go into the office. These days that entailed little more than shuffling around paper and reading psychology journals, especially on a Saturday, but she needed that routine to anchor her now more than ever.
She quickly donned a tailored pantsuit and coiled her hair into a knot on top of her head. Just as she slicked a layer of nude gloss over her lips, a knock sounded at the door. She peered at her watch with a frown. Twenty minutes early. She hadn’t even agreed to this yet, and the man was already disrupting her schedule.
She crossed the room to the entryway and pasted a cool smile on her lips. He’d come a long way, five hours by car, as a favor to a friend. Good manners dictated that she not let him see her frustration. She opened the door with a polite, “Hello.”
“Nice digs,” he said, crowding into the doorway.
A blast of awareness sucked the breath from her lungs as a big body pressed against hers. She took a step back to give him some more room. He just seemed to take up so much of it. It was like a wall of muscle had planted itself square in the middle of her personal space. A tall one, to boot. She was no slouch at five nine, but he had her by a solid six inches even with her two-inch heels. She craned her neck to meet his annoyed gaze.
“That’s me.” Firm lips twisted into a semblance of a smile before flattening again. “Now can you tell me why you opened the door and let me in before asking that question?” His hazel eyes were flecked with gold and should have looked warm, but instead they were bleak, like a lone jack pine on a February day. His coal-black hair was nothing more than a suggestion, the crew cut style adding to the severity of his look. He arched his dark brows, clearly awaiting an answer.
Hot anger ignited her vow to be cordial, burning it to a cinder in two seconds flat. She wasn’t about to allow this Neanderthal to intimidate her. “Lindy told me you were coming at this time. And unless The Rock is on hiatus from shooting his latest film, I didn’t it think it likely that another ludicrously gigantic man in a black leather jacket over a too-tight T-shirt was going to show up at my doorstep at eleven a.m. on a Saturday.” She scowled at him. “Honestly, who else would you be?”
He glanced outside the door, left and right, and then closed it behind them, blocking out the unseasonable chill. “It’s not eleven yet. I’m early. And I
be a person coming to kill you. You know, like all those other people who worked at that resort with you before they embarked on their new careers pushing up daisies.”
He didn’t come right out and say
but his tone definitely implied it, and her cheeks warmed under his scrutiny. He was right. She’d only taken a quick glance out the peephole before swinging the door wide open.
“Of course you’re correct,” she said stiffly, banking her anger. “I’ve never been in this position before so this is all new to me. I’ll be more careful next time.”
“There won’t be a next time because you won’t be here.” He turned without waiting for a response and strode in the direction of the kitchen, seeming to take stock of his surroundings as he went.
She scurried after him, nudging her glasses farther up on her nose. “Where are you going?”
“Into the kitchen so we can talk,” he said as he approached the table. He picked up the chair and flipped it backward to straddle it. “Got any coffee made? I’ve been on the road since five and didn’t want to take the time to stop.”
Because he’d promised Owen he would get there as quickly as possible to help her.
Guilt pricked at her, and she grudgingly went to fill a mug. “I assume you take it black?” she asked, setting it in front of him.
“Why would you assume that?” he asked with a mocking grin. “Cream if you got it, and three sugars.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. He probably only drank it that way to throw people off. As she bustled around the kitchen gathering the fixings, she recalled something Lindy had said about him. Supposedly he was originally from Scotland, but most of the brogue must have been forced out along the way. Barely a hint remained in the silky baritone.
Probably not enough room for it with all that judgment,
she thought with a sniff. She set the cream and sugar at his elbow along with a teaspoon.
“Have a seat,” he said.
She bristled at the tone but pulled out a chair and sat. No point in being pissy. She expected she’d have a fight on her hands soon when she told him she wasn’t going with him. No reason to expedite it.
“You’re a smart lady, so I’m sure you’ve already put it together, but I’m going to confirm it for you because I get the feeling you don’t appreciate the seriousness of the situation. Three people from your former place of work have been killed, and if you’re not next, you’re pretty damn near it.”
She winced but held his matter-of-fact gaze. “I wasn’t a part of the grift. I was a legitimate employee of a company I thought was committed to helping couples through a rough time, and I did that to the best of my ability. I was cleared of all charges and released. The people who’ve been killed were all either under investigation or had already been charged with a crime and were awaiting trial.”
“So far,” he conceded with a curt nod. “But this could be the tip of the iceberg, and we can’t assume that anyone on the payroll is safe. I’ve been doing security for a long time now, both in the army and in the private sector. Trust me when I tell you this is a high-risk situation.”
“Then why aren’t the police here offering me protection? Surely if they agreed with your assessment, I’d have been notified,” she asked, wrapping her arms around herself to ward off the sudden chill.
“The victims weren’t living in the same states, and none of them died the same way. Marcel Renault, hit-and-run. Liza Ingram, aka Shirleen Dennis, death by drowning. They haven’t released this info yet, but my source tells me that Nico was shot in a staged burglary. The cops are only connecting the dots now. Whoever’s doing this has a long reach and vast resources.” A muscle leaped restlessly beneath his hair-stubbled cheekbone. “If you think a couple of nighttime patrolmen driving past your house is going to stop them, I would question whether or not you’ve spent your morning sniffing glue.”