Authors: Olivia Claire High
“Relax warden, I’m not armed. I want a drink of water. Don’t you ever sleep?”
“I was sleeping. You woke me up,” he yawned and set his gun aside.
“I don’t see how. I was quiet.”
“I have very good hearing.”
“So I’ve noticed. I wouldn’t be surprised if you could hear a gnat pass wind.”
“Cute. Now tell me why you’re really up at this time of night.”
“I can’t sleep. If it gives you some kind of perverted satisfaction to hear me beg, then I will.”
Thad leaned against the back of the sofa and crossed his arms over his chest.
“I do not enjoy hearing you beg, but go ahead, vent if it’ll make you feel any better. You’re entitled.”
“You’re darn right I am. I’m being punished for something that isn’t my fault. I didn’t steal anyone’s money, and I didn’t run off with a gangster’s daughter. But I’m the one being made to pay. I want to go home. You know that. How many times do I have to keep saying it?”
He stood up and eased his arms down to his sides.
“Suzanne, I know how . . .”
“Don’t you dare try to pacify me. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of you and I’m sick of this place.”
“I was about to say you’ll be going home, but if you’d rather not hear it, then I’ll shut up.”
She grabbed his arm when he started to turn away.
“I’m going home? When? You’d better not be lying, buster.”
“I planned to tell you at breakfast. You’ll be leaving here tomorrow.”
“Finally!” She gripped her hands together and raised them up in a prayerful gesture.
“Thank you, Jesus. What time is our flight? I don’t have much here in the way of clothes. Maybe you can let me buy something before we get to the airport. Does my mom know I’m coming home? How about Heather? Did you tell them? I assume you’ve been in contact.”
Thad held his hand up.
“Slow down a bit. Your mother and Heather haven’t been informed. It’s safer for all of us that way. I can’t risk you shopping in public, so forget about that. Find something here to wear. It doesn’t matter what you put on because we’ll be going via a private jet late at night. But if changing your clothes is so important, you can do it on the plane. Your things from the cruise will be there. Arrangements have been made for us to go through security in a secluded area to minimize the fact that we’re leaving.”
“I’ll get my stuff from the cruise? That’s good news.” She started to say something else, but stopped.
“Wait a minute. Did I hear you right? Are you going to be on that plane with me?”
“Of course I’m going with you. I thought you understood that.”
“Okay, fine. I don’t care if you want to continue this bodyguard gig for a few more hours as long as I get to go back to my place. But once I’m home, we end our cozy twosome.”
He shook his head. “I’m afraid not.”
Her mouth gaped open.
“Do not tell me you’re going to be staying with me in my house.”
“Got it in one.”
“No way, pal. My home is my turf, and I call the shots there.”
“Not this time. Your father hasn’t followed his original plan, so no one knows what he’s going to do at this point. I’ll be your shadow in case he tries to get in touch with you.”
“I have to go back to school once my summer break is over. What are you going to do about that?” she challenged.
“We’ll handle it when the time comes. Hopefully your father will come through, and I’ll just be a bad memory by then.”
“Which means in the meantime I’m stuck with you as my jailer.”
“Houseguest sounds more pleasant, don’t you think?”
She continued to scowl at him. “You don’t want to know what I’m really thinking.”
“This might be a lot easier for both of us if you’d try to accept the situation for what it is.”
“What would be easier is if men like you and my father left me out of your schemes.”
They arrived at Suzanne’s house under the cover of darkness. Thad set their bags down on the front porch. He snatched the key out of Suzanne’s hand as soon as she retrieved it from a nearby flowerpot.
“You hide your house key in a flowerpot?” He shook his head. “Incredible.”
Suzanne stuck out her chin.
“It’s my house. I can hide the key wherever I please.” She held out her hand. “Now give it back.”
“Not just yet. Tell me the layout of the floor plan before we go inside.”
“I’m sure you already know exactly what everything is like, since you seem to know everything else about me.”
“Let’s just see if our information matches up.”
She huffed out an impatient breath.
“The front door opens directly into the living room. The hallway to the left has two bedrooms divided by the bathroom. The kitchen and eating area are to the right.”
“How many exit doors?”
“Two. This one and another one in the kitchen.”
“Where does it lead to?”
“The backyard. It’s also small and has a wooden fence with one gate that goes to a service alley.”
“Do you have an alarm system?”
“I’m sure you know I don’t; and before you start lecturing me, I’ve never felt the need for one.”
“You should think about it. Your door lock would be child’s play to any self-respecting burglar. Stay here while I check everything out and don’t turn on the porch light.”
Suzanne watched Thad disappear into the house. She stood, tapping her foot waiting for him to return. He came back after a few minutes, picked up their bags, and motioned
for her to enter
ahead of him. She walked into the living room and took a deep breath, comforted by the familiar surroundings. It felt so good to be home again she almost forgot that she wasn’t going to have the house to herself.
“Where do you want me to put your things?” Thad asked, holding up her suitcase.
“I’ll take it. I sleep in the second bedroom. Since I’m going to be stuck with you I have no choice but to offer you the other one. Try not to snore. The walls are thin.”
“I rarely snore, and if I do you won’t hear me.”
Suzanne narrowed her eyes at him.
“Is that so? How do you know you aren’t noisy if you’re asleep?”
“I don’t always sleep alone.”
“Well, you will be while you’re here. There’s only one bathroom. Don’t leave the toilet seat up, or wet towels on the floor. I’d say welcome, but because I don’t want you here I won’t waste my breath.”
Thad surprised her by gripping her arm. He spun her around to face him when she would have walked away.
“Look. I don’t want to be here anymore than you want me, but I have a job to do and I’m going to do it. I’ve about had it with your constant complaining. You whine more than any ten women. If this is how you acted with your ex-fiancé it’s no wonder he left.”
Her eyes flashed with fury before she flung the suitcase down and slapped him across one cheek.
“You macho swine! God, how I hate you!”
“I’ll let you have that one because my comment was out of line. But don’t ever try it again.”
“Then keep your mouth shut, and your hands to yourself.” She grabbed her bag and stomped away.
Thad heard a door slam. He rubbed a hand over the red mark on his cheek.
Suzanne dropped her suitcase as soon as she entered her bedroom. How had she ever considered Thad to be nice? She must have been blinded by faulty hormones. The man was an insufferable pig and to think she’d be forced to share her house with him made her hand itch to slap him on his other arrogant cheek, despite his warning.
She rubbed her eyes. It’d been a long day. Hopefully she’d be in a better mood after getting some sleep. Suzanne walked across the room thinking how wonderful it was going to feel being in her own bed again. She yanked back the bedspread and froze.
Thad said her door lock was child’s play. Apparently he was right.
A bird’s feather, as black as a raven’s wing lay in stark contrast against the bright white of the pillowcase.
Suzanne’s first thought was to go running to Thad, but she made herself stop as soon as she reached for the doorknob. If she mentioned the feather she might never get him to leave her house. She took her time walking back to the bed and stood there with heart pounding staring at the feather. She’d dismissed the feather on the ship, but having this one in her home was too much of a coincidence to brush aside.
Now that she knew what her father had done to the Montanes she wondered if this could be a theatrical prop to scare her. Whatever the reason, it appeared to be doing a good job in that respect when just looking at the feather made her heart race and her palms sweat.
The feathers were a warning. First the one on the ship and she didn’t have to remind herself what happened after that. Now this latest one. Did that mean something drastic was going to happen again?
God, she hoped not.
She pulled the pillowcase off, wrapped it around the offending feather, and stuffed it into a small wastebasket. Now what? She couldn’t take it outside without Thad getting nosy. Her eyes strayed to the closet. She pulled open the door and shoved the basket inside. Hopefully in this case out of sight, out of mind would help to calm her nerves.
Suzanne wasn’t surprised when she had trouble sleeping. She couldn’t stop thinking about her missing father, the vengeful Montanes, and their black feathers. She’d probably be sitting here with a baseball bat in her hands worrying about someone breaking in if she’d been alone in the house. But she reminded herself Thad was here to protect her. She suddenly felt very glad about that and also swamped with guilt for the way she’d treated him.
It wasn’t his fault she was in this predicament. He was only trying to keep her safe from whatever danger her irresponsible father had brought down on her. Thad had a job to do, as he reminded her, and all she’d done was criticize and find fault with him. The least she could do was try to be more cooperative and make the best of a bad situation as long as they had to cohabitate. Suzanne decided she would be as nice as she possibly could and treat him with the consideration she would have with any houseguest.
She closed her eyes determined to make peace with Thad and show him she could be a team player.
Suzanne waited until she heard him leave the bathroom in the morning before she shrugged into a robe and left her room. She would convince him that she really wasn’t a sniveling crybaby. She followed the sound of his voice to the kitchen and found him pacing the floor while talking on his phone.
He ended the call as soon as she entered the room and shoved the phone into a pocket of his faded jeans. His dark tee shirt outlined every hard muscle as though the material had been painted on his body. He’d left his shoes and socks off. Suzanne stood there staring at him. God help her if she had to continue living under the same roof with him when even his bare feet looked sexy.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I made coffee. Would you like some?”
“That’d be great. What better way to start the day?” she said trying to match his casual tone.
His eyes traveled over her thin robe that did little to disguise the delicate curves beneath.
“Oh, I can think of a few.” He poured a mug and handed it to her. “We need to talk.”
“Yes we do.” Suzanne took a sip and held up her cup. “You make excellent coffee.”
“Thank you.” He leaned back against a counter. “Ladies first.”
Suzanne cleared her throat. “A couple of things. First, I think I’ll take your advice and have a security system installed. Do you happen to know how much they cost?”
“Depends, but don’t worry, I’ll have a friend do it for nothing.”
“I appreciate that, but I would like to pay something.”
Thad inclined his head. “We’ll talk about it later. You said you had a couple of things to talk about.”
“Yes. I owe you an apology. I’ve been acting like a spoiled brat. I’m not usually so difficult to get along with. I know you’re trying to do your job and I appreciate that.” She took another long swallow of her coffee before looking at him again. “I’m sorry I slapped you. James is a sore subject with me.”
“Apology accepted. But you’re not the only one at fault here. You’ve had it rough. I should have remembered that. It’s a wonder you didn’t try to cut my tongue out after that crack about your ex. I’m really sorry, Suzanne. That was uncalled for.”
“No it is not okay. I couldn’t have been more insensitive. I guarantee it won’t happen again.”
She was about to ask him if he’d ever been dumped by a woman. But looking at his body, she decided it was highly unlikely. He probably was the one who did the dumping.
“Um, what did you want to talk to me about?”
“Ground rules. We stick together twenty-four/seven. I go where you go. That is not negotiable.”
“What do I tell people if they ask me who you are?”
Thad moved away from the counter. He pulled a kitchen chair out, sat down, and began to tug on his socks and tennis shoes
“Give them enough truth to cover the lie. We met on the cruise. We hit it off and you invited me to follow you home.”
“That ought to give the neighbors something to buzz about.” Suzanne twisted her fingers around the tie of her robe. “I hope we can be friends, Thad. It will make things a lot easier, especially since you’re going to be staying here. I had the opportunity aboard ship to see what a nice man you really are. I’d like to get to know that man better.”
“You have it all wrong. I was acting. I am not a nice man. But that doesn’t mean I won’t still continue to play my role when we’re around people. Let me remind you that you’ll have to do your share if we’re going to be convincing as a couple who are supposed to be attracted to each other.”
His bluntness made her offer of friendship dissolve like ashes in her mouth. Pride demanded that she refuse to let him know how much his callousness hurt her fragile emotions. He expected her to be a team player without them sharing any team spirit.
“You certainly managed to fool me. Your performance was Academy award material.”
“It’s better this way.”
“I’m beginning to think the only way is your way for everything.”
Suzanne banged her cup down and ran from the room.
Thad swore under his breath. It seemed as though every time he tried to talk to Suzanne he ended up driving her away. That might not be such a bad thing considering his job was to protect her, not get personal. But that was easier said than done. He’d fought the personal part from the moment he first saw her standing at the railing on the ship. She looked so vulnerable and in need of comfort that he probably would have offered to help even if it hadn’t been his assignment to get to know her.
His feelings for her came into sharp focus the day she’d been shot. Seeing the blood soaking into her blouse and then having her fall out of the Jeep almost made his heart stop. Having to spend the time holed up with her and watching while she sunbathed in that skimpy bikini left his body aching with need, leaving little doubt that he was physically attracted to her.
Picturing her sleeping in the next room while they were in the house in the jungle had been sheer torture. Now it looked as though things weren’t going to get any easier. He’d hoped someone else would take over once the orders came to move Suzanne back here, but that wasn’t going to happen.
He would have to ignore his feelings and pretend she was just another case. He felt like a hungry lion sent to guard a tender little lamb. Being with her these few minutes had him tied in knots. He stood up, dumped his cold coffee down the sink, and slammed out the door.
Thad finished checking the area outside just as Suzanne met him in the kitchen doorway.
“We’re picking up Heather for brunch.” She dangled a set of car keys in front of him. “Do you prefer to drive or will you trust me behind the wheel?”
Her chilly voice matched the frosty look in her eyes, but Thad knew he’d asked for it.
“Your town. Your car. You drive,” he said, imitating her icy tone.
She gave him a mock salute.
Suzanne led the way outside to where her small sedan was parked.
“You’ll have to excuse me because I’m still getting used to this cloak and dagger stuff. Do you need to check the car for bombs?”
“I already have.”
“Of course you have. How silly of me to ask.”
Thad clenched his jaw barely managing not to grind his teeth.
“Stop trying to make the situation more difficult than it already is. Carrying that chip on your shoulder isn’t going to make things any easier for either of us.”
“If I’m carrying a chip on my shoulder then you must be balancing a log on yours. I’m not the one who set the stage for this farce. You do your part and I’ll do mine. But don’t expect anything more from me,” she informed him in that same cold voice before climbing into the car.
They were sitting outside on the patio of a trendy little café. Thad stayed quiet, his eyes constantly scanning the area while Suzanne brought Heather up on all her news since leaving the ship.
“You were shot? Oh my God. Are you sure you’re all right? Does it still hurt?”
“It did, but I’m fine now. The bump on my head actually bothered me more.”
“Thad’s friends should have told me,” Heather scolded.
“They didn’t know about it at the time.”
“Is this all because of your dad?”
Suzanne nodded. “I’m afraid so. Needless to say I’m pretty upset with him right now.”
“I should think so. I don’t suppose he thought how his running off with all that money would impact your life. I could throttle him when I think of the danger he’s put you in.”
“Get in line. You know my dad. Self-gratification comes first where he’s concerned.”
Heather scooted her chair closer to Thad. “You never know what to expect from her parents. They’ve always been kind of flighty.”
“So I’ve heard.”
Thad let the two women talk while he kept his attention focused on what was going on around them.
put Suzanne in a much better mood. He was grateful for the small reprieve. Being around a female who acted like she had permanent PMS was enough to bring any man to his knees.
Suzanne left Heather at her house after lunch and they made promises to meet again soon.
“You probably noticed there isn’t much food in the house,” she said to Thad, as she backed out of the driveway. “I need to go to the grocery store. Is that going to be a problem?”
“Only one way to find out.”
Suzanne concentrated on getting through traffic while Thad continued to stare around, including the rearview mirror.
“You’ll have to tell me what you like to eat. Kenny fixed a lot of tropical dishes. I may not be able to duplicate that kind of cooking. I’m not sure what other kind of food you prefer.”
“Anything is fine. You cook it, I’ll eat it.”
“Aren’t you afraid I might try to poison you?”
“Nope. Too much trouble trying to get rid of my body,” he said before turning his head to look over his shoulder. “Take the next right.”
“That’s not the way to the store.”
“Just do it. Please.”
Her head jerked toward him. “What’s wrong? Are we being followed?”
“I’m not sure yet.” He looked in the mirror again. “Turn left here.”
Suzanne did as he asked while darting anxious glances at him in between watching her driving. They were getting into a residential area where the streets were narrower. She slowed down when she saw several children playing close to the curb up ahead.
“Is everything all right now?”
“Where does this street lead to?” Thad asked without answering her query.
“I don’t know. I’ve never been this way before. What should I do?”
“Just concentrate on driving for now. Take a few more left and right turns indiscriminately and we’ll see what happens. Stay on this street.” He pulled his phone out and made a call. “We have a tail.”
Suzanne gripped the wheel, as he gave their location and description of the car behind them.
“I can’t believe this is happening to me here.”
“You didn’t think the bad guys would stop going after you just because you came home, did you?”
She thought of the black feather lying on her pillow. “Whoever said home sweet home was lying through their teeth.”
Suzanne pulled into her driveway ten minutes later and leaned back in the seat, pale and breathing heavily. Her hand shook when she lifted several strands of hair away from her sweaty temples.
“I’m a trembling like a leaf. I may never want to drive again if this keeps up.”
“You did fine. Let’s get you into the house. You look like you could use a stiff drink.”
“I feel like it.”