Authors: Samantha Chase
The Protectors: Book Two
Noelle Adams and Samantha Chase
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 Noelle Adams and Samantha Chase. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means.
I’d been to a lot of social events in my life. Hell, being part of the Maxwell family was a social event in and of itself. But, watching Levi and Harper dance together as they celebrated their engagement, I felt like something was missing.
It wasn’t like I’d forgotten about Gavin. That could never happen. But lately it seemed as if my life was out of sync, and I hadn’t been thinking about him like I should. The way I owed it to him.
He should be here. Right here, right now, standing here, watching the sister he loved with all his heart and the friend who had known him since forever. He should be celebrating the beginning of their life together.
Instead of me.
I felt guilt eating away at me, but that was nothing new. If events had gone the way they should have on that fateful day—not even a year ago—Gavin would have been here. But there was no way to say that I was sorry or to right that horrible wrong. I was just stuck. Standing in a spot that should have been his.
We were friends. We were comrades. We were a unit. We were Marines together. The five of us vowed to have each other’s backs and to be together until the end. But the end came way too soon. Backs weren’t had after all, and now we were only four. Gavin was gone. His family would never be the same, and it might have been because I got distracted. I should have done better.
The music was too loud. The crowd around me was swaying along with the happy couple, and excitement and laughter filled the air. But all I wanted was to get blind, stinking drunk and leave.
Some great friend I was.
Levi was one of my best friends, and I really was happy for him—at least, that was what I kept reminding myself. Maybe if he was with someone other than Harper—someone other than Gavin’s sister—I’d be having an easier time of this. But now, because she was Gavin’s sister, I’d be forever reminded of what I did. What I didn’t do. What I cost her.
Like I needed a reminder.
Someone bumped my shoulder, and I turned to see Declan beside me, drink in hand, smile on his face. Lucky bastard. I took the drink but didn’t return the smile. I couldn’t. The emotions inside of me were damn-near choking me.
Declan looked as if he was about to comment on it when the music ended and everyone began cheering and clapping for the happy couple.
I joined in, but was half-hearted at best.
I guess Declan could tell that I wasn’t in the mood for conversation because, once everyone started to walk around and mingle again, he took off. Looking around, I saw Cole chatting up one of Harper’s friends. It was good to see him smile. Like Declan. Like Levi.
Just not me.
The photographer called out to the families of the future bride and groom. And that was my cue to toss back the drink that Declan gave me and go in search of another. The last thing I wanted to do was watch what a normal family did to interact with one another.
What the hell must that be like?
Without a word, the bartender refreshed my drink, and I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder. Levi’s dad was positively beaming with pride as he posed with his son. Beside them, his mother looked exactly the same way. I spotted Harper with her folks, and I was surprised to see the same expression on their faces. I knew that this couldn’t be easy for them. I mean, sure, they’d be happy for their daughter, but she was marrying their son’s best friend.
son’s best friend.
I was sure on some level they were sad that Gavin wasn’t here to celebrate this day with them. I was also pretty certain that it had to be freaking painful to have that reminder hovering in front of their eyes every time Levi was there. And Gavin wasn’t.
Maybe I shouldn’t have come. Maybe I just should have sent my damn gift and stayed home. I practically snorted in disgust and choked on my drink at that thought. Home. Like that was any better than this. At least here I was surrounded by people who were, for the most part, happy. People who treated one another with respect and seemed to genuinely love one another.
What the hell did I have? A family of freaks whose sole interest was making money and then lording it over the people around them. They called it a privileged life. I called it hell. I never wanted to be a corporate guy, never wanted to be part of that world. Not that it didn’t have its perks. Unfortunately, most of those perks came with strings attached, and I was really not the kind of guy who wanted to untangle those strings. They were like a minefield sometimes.
I had hoped that, in the time I was in the service and deployed, maybe my family would have had a come-to-Jesus meeting amongst themselves. After all, they had nearly lost me. The accident that had claimed Gavin had almost claimed me, too.
Clearly I was wrong.
Most of us came home to a hero’s welcome. I came home to disinterest. It was simply expected that I’d return, so there really was no need to celebrate. The fact that I came home injured, however…let’s just say that there was a part of me that thought my family almost would have preferred that I’d been the one killed. After all, I was no longer perfect—not in their eyes. I don’t know why I expected anything more of them. I’ve known all my life that they tolerated nothing less than perfection.
But I wasn’t perfect.
I never had been.
And I never would be.
Quite honestly, I’d never be what they want me to be. We might have shared DNA, but after that, I still hadn’t figured out how it was that I was even a part of them. They were greedy, selfish, and self-serving. I just wanted to be free to be the man that I wanted to be. Free to help out where I was needed. Free to make mistakes.
Free to be forgiven.
Finishing off my drink, I turned around to watch all the well-wishers, how they were laughing and smiling and having a good time. If there was anyone in this room who had a grudge—or any issues at all—you’d never know it from their behavior. No, this was a group of people at their best.
Most of the time, when I was in a room like this, with a crowd like this, I’d be watching my back. My family made a lot of friends over the years, but they made more enemies. I did my best to not get involved—to not be part of that upper-class world. It was getting easier now that we’d started the business. Who knew that protecting people and doing security work was in such big demand. Either way, I was glad for it. Glad for the distraction. It was giving me a chance to break away from family ties and old habits.
I needed to break away completely—to prove that I was my own person, my own man, and not somebody’s errand boy or figurehead or whatever executive title it was that they wanted to engrave on an office nameplate. I wanted to be free to be just me. Sebastian. Not a Maxwell. Not a poster boy for high-society.
Unfortunately, our name was too well-known. Too much history. Too many connections. And I had to wonder how that was going to play out if I broke free from the world my father expected me to inhabit. I might walk away, but that didn’t necessarily mean it wouldn’t catch up with me.
The Maxwells had made their share of enemies. I was sure it was only a matter of time before I ran into them.
Being the assistant to an event planner was not a very glamorous job.
I was pretty good at it, since I was organized, efficient, and quiet, but it was not the job I’d dreamed of when I was growing up. I’d always imagined myself working in a museum, and my favorite history teacher in high school had advised me to go into anthropology.
Then everything changed during my senior year when Maxwell Industries closed the office my dad worked for, and our lives spiraled downhill from there.
I didn’t go to college. I worked in retail until I got this job as assistant to Cheryl Hoover, who was a big-time event planner in the D.C. area and whom I’d known for most of my life.
My job was mostly grunt work and biting my tongue, but it paid better than any other job I was qualified for, and at least I didn’t have to sell clothes or wait tables.
There were other benefits too. For instance, I never would have been able to get into the luxurious home of Ken Gentry, the COO of Maxwell Industries, had I not been working for Cheryl.
Right now, my job had me snapping photos of his large, ornate ballroom.
“Ali,” Cheryl called to me from across the room. She had her tablet in hand, but she never actually used it. She was dressed to the nines in four-inch-heels, silk blouse, and pencil skirt. “Be sure to get the garden too. And the entry hall and staircase.”
I’d already done the entry hall and staircase, as soon as we’d arrived. Since she’d been standing right next to me when I’d been taking the pictures, one might think she would have noticed, but I was used to her now. She was good at big-picture thinking for special events, but she invariably got caught up in schmoozing and never bothered much about details.
That was what I was here for, after all. Handling all the details.
“Got it,” I said, finishing this side of the room before walking over to join her.
“We talked about that lighting display out by the pool,” she said, looking through the French doors heading out to the terrace. “So call Chuck about that. And we’ll need to get Michelle to work on the landscaping.”
“You’ll ask Mr. and Mrs. Gentry first, before we bring someone in to re-landscape their garden, right?”
“Of course. Of course. Just make sure Michelle is available. She’s the only one who can get it the way I like it. You’ll be all right finishing up in here? I need to go talk to Ken.”
“Yes, I’ve got things covered here.”
“And do something with your hair,” Cheryl added, giving me an assessing look.
I raised my hands to my straight brown hair, which was pulled back in a low ponytail. It felt like it was still in place. “What’s wrong with it?”
“You look like a school marm.”
I wasn’t offended. I’d known Cheryl too long to be bothered by comments like that. She was always waging a losing battle to add glamor to my life. I just didn’t have money or interest in beautifying myself. I wasn’t bad looking—dark hair and eyes, classic features, average height. Guys had asked me out some in high school, before everything happened, so I assumed I wasn’t repellant to the opposite sex. Today, I wore a pair a no-nonsense black slacks and a gray twin set. I looked perfectly professional, like I would blend into the background in any context, which was exactly what I wanted. “What’s wrong with looking like a school marm?”
“Nothing, if you’re teaching in a one-room schoolhouse on the prairie. You’re in the big leagues now, though, and Ken likes attractive women.”
“Well, you’re attractive enough for both of us. He’s not going to care about me.”
Ken Gentry wouldn’t even know who I was, even though he and the Maxwells had destroyed my family.
Cheryl rolled her eyes, but her phone rang just then, so she didn’t have a chance to object any further.
While she chatted on the phone, I slipped out through the French doors so I could take pictures of the pool and garden areas. It really was a beautiful piece of property, and the Georgian architecture was formal and elegant.
But every gorgeous spot I saw just intensified the bitterness in my mouth, in my chest. It was a palpable sign of a deep injustice in the universe. That Ken Gentry should live here, amidst beauty and luxury, while my family lived in a small rental house that sometimes felt like it might fall down around our heads.
On that thought, I glanced down at my phone and saw it was almost four o’clock. I dialed Rosie, my fifteen-year-old sister, who should be home from school by now.
“Hi, Ali,” she said, when she picked up the call.
“Hey, how is everything there?”
“Oh. You know.” The words were mumbled in a familiar way—the way Rosie always expressed herself when she was upset or uncomfortable.
“Is Tyler home yet?”
“What do you think?”
I thought Tyler, our brother, probably wouldn’t be home until after midnight—which had become his typical pattern. He had just turned eighteen and was always in trouble. He basically hadn’t had a parent for the last six years, and there wasn’t anything I could do to guide him to better ways.
I was just his older sister, and most of the time he didn’t even like me.
“How was school?” I asked, changing the subject to something that didn’t hurt so much.
“Anything exciting happen?”
“Anything interesting in any of your classes?”
I sighed, feeling a swell of helplessness as I searched for a question that might engage her. Rosie and I had been close for the first fourteen years of her life, but last year she started drifting away.
Not into partying or drugs or boys, though. She didn’t seem to have any real friends at all, and she spent most of her time buried in books.
She was like me—quiet, reserved, retreating—but she’d pulled back farther than I had ever been. Sometimes, I was scared of ever getting her back.
“What time will you be home tonight?” she asked.
“I’m going to try to get back by seven. Cheryl has an appointment at five that I have to go to with her, but I don’t think it will last much more than an hour. I can stop by the store on my way home. Do we need anything?”
It was a question I asked as a matter of rote. I knew very well that we needed groceries. A better question would be what
I made as much money as I could expect with only a high school education, but it wasn’t a lot for a family of four—especially since my dad drank away any money he could get his hands on.
“Yeah.” Rosie’s voice sounded thin and wispy, not like the voice of a fifteen-year-old. “Get whatever you can. I’ll try to make some soup or something for dinner. We have some leftovers that might go together.”
It hurt. It physically hurt. Rosie should be hanging out with friends and giggling over boys. She shouldn’t be scouring the pantry for something to cook for her family’s dinner.
“I’ll bring something in,” I said. “Don’t worry about trying to make something. I’ll be home around seven.”
“Okay. See you then.”
I hung up, feeling sad and sick and helpless.
And as angry as I’d ever been in my life, looking around at the carefully manicured lawns and hedges of the formal garden.
Bought with blood money, as far as I was concerned.
The picketers outside the front gate thought the same thing. They were the normal anti-big-business crowd, and for the last few weeks a small, motley collection of them had been splitting their time between the company’s corporate headquarters in downtown D.C. and the public park across the street from the Gentry property, which was evidently as close as they could legally get to any of the bigwigs’ homes.
They hated Maxwell Industries for their general business practices.
My grudge was more personal.
Six years ago, when I was seventeen, Ken Gentry and the Maxwells had made the decision to close an entire branch office and lay off all the employees beneath a certain level. My father was one of those laid off.
I really think I could have accepted that. Business, after all, was business. But Ken and the Maxwells did more than that. They cheated some of their faithful employees out of the pension and benefits they’d earned by arguing some sort of loophole in the contracts. So, after working for twenty-four years for Maxwell Industries, my dad got nothing but a kick out the door.
He’d been utterly crushed. He’d gone into a downward spiral of alcoholism and depression. My mom died when I was eight, so I was the only one left to take care of Tyler and Rosie. Any hope I’d had for a future was gone. I had to bring in a paycheck, and that meant there was no time to take college classes or do anything much for myself.
If bad things just happened, there wasn’t anything you could do about it. Sometimes hurricanes hit or cancer was diagnosed or lightning struck, and no one could be blamed.
someone to blame for my family’s situation. Maxwell Industries—headed up by John Maxwell and his ruthless family. Also Ken Gentry and the decisions he’d made as COO.
were to blame. They had done this to us.
So when, several months ago, Cheryl mentioned that Gentry wanted her to plan a big charity event but she was thinking of not taking it on—since events like that were more trouble than they were worth—a plan had come fully formed in my head. I knew exactly what I was going to do.
Maybe it was crazy, but it made perfect sense to me.
If a decision had been made to cheat my father and all of the other low-level employees out of benefits that rightly belonged to them, then there might be some evidence of it. And that meant that justice could still be done. The only way I could find it was to get into the house. And the only way I could get in the house was if Cheryl took the job.
So I began a subtle campaign of convincing her that taking this job would be good for her business, and a week later she had decided to take it on, thinking it was her idea.
We’d started to plan the event months ago, but now—just over a month before the event date—we had to really buckle down and take care of the on-site work.
So here I was on the Gentry estate, and no one had any idea how much I hated him. Not even Cheryl, who had known me forever. No one knew what I was planning to do here, which was exactly what I needed.
Since there was a lot of preparation to be done, I’d have plenty of opportunities to look around during the next few weeks.
I wasn’t going to do anything dangerous, since Rosie still needed me. But, if the chance arose to find information, then I was sure as hell going to look for it.
Not that anything compromising would be found in the garden here, but I still needed to snap the location shots so we’d have them for reference in planning.
I’d made my way past the pool and terrace area and down one of the walks through the garden when I saw an outbuilding I wasn’t expecting.
It didn’t look like a garage or a workshop, and it was too far away to be a pool house, so I peeked into the window to see what was inside.
Through the window, I saw a glimpse of a couch and a desk.
It looked like an office, although this was a strange place for it. An
I admit it. My first thought was that this might be some sort of secret office hideaway, which might mean it was holding secrets.
Now, I rationally knew it was highly unlikely that I would find incriminating evidence so easily, in the first outbuilding I stumbled on, but it really did look like an office inside, so it would be stupid not to check it out.
This was my rationale in the thirty seconds I stood peering in the window.
I walked to the door and tried to open it, but it was locked. Of course.
I checked under the doormat and the flower pot next to the door, since rich people were sometimes stupid that way, but there was no key there.
So I walked around and checked the windows. They were all locked until I got to the one in the back. That one was cracked open about an inch.
Feeling pleased and victorious, I pushed the window up.
It really wouldn’t be that hard for me to climb inside.
I stood for a minute, trying to decide whether I should do it or not. No one was around. What harm could it do? If I was caught, I could always say I was checking out the building for possible use in the charity event.
It wasn’t dangerous. And it would be a first step toward seeking justice, restoring my family’s honor.
Feeling a rush of determination, I leaned in and saw that the window opened to what definitely looked like an office. My heart raced as I started to climb inside.
“What are you doing?”
I froze, halfway in the window, when I heard the unexpected male voice from behind me.
My mind whirled with fear, embarrassment, and desperation as I tried to remember the excuse I’d just thought up a minute ago.
This wasn’t supposed to be happening.