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Middle East Unrest Travels to Houston One Dead in Protests.
Jake Cantrell turned off the engine of his Jeep and glanced over at the front page of the Houston Chronicle lying on the passenger seat. The headline in the morning paper was a reminder of why he was there, parked in front of the mirrored-glass, fourteen-story Marine Drilling International building.
It was still hot as Hades today, the first of September, the sun and humidity baking him in his navy blue suit and white shirt as he strode toward the wide concrete steps leading up to the front doors. The clothes were the worst part of a protection detailwearing a jacket and tie instead of the jeans and T-shirts he lived in most of the time. But the pay was top-notch and he'd been getting more and more restless sitting behind a desk at Atlas Security, handling the day-to-day management of the company while the owner, his best friend, Trace Rawlins, and Trace's wife, Maggie, were off on an extended honeymoon in Australia.
Jake was damn glad they were finally home.
Pushing through the heavy glass doors, he entered the lobby, icy-cold in comparison to the wet heat outside. He headed for the bank of elevators and stepped inside one, pushed the button for the twelfth floor, then waited through the ride to the executive level.
The time hands on his heavy steel wristwatch said he was a few minutes early for his ten o'clock appointment with Ian Dumont, the founder of Marine Drilling, CEO and chairman of the board. The family-owned business, originally Dumont Drilling, had been in oil production since the fifties, when Ian had made his first big strike along the Gulf Coast.
Today, they were mostly in offshore oil and gas production, thus the name change to Marine Drilling International. The Dumont family was well-known in Houston society, with big money and everything that went with it.
Walking out of the elevator, he made his way across shiny black granite floor to the reception desk, where his shoes sank into thick gray carpet. The waiting area was all black leather sofas and chairs, the desk itself smooth dark walnut and chrome. Nothing but the best for the Dumonts.
A good-looking woman in her late twenties with wavy, shoulder-length, mink-brown hair was busily searching the drawers and cabinets behind the desk. The way she bent over in her tailored pencil skirt provided him with a perfect view of a very shapely ass.
He almost smiled.
Even the help was first-class.
She jerked upright at his approach, noticing him for the first time, and her face colored. It was a pretty face with amazing golden-brown eyes that looked him up and down, which took a while, Jake being six-five, two hundred thrty-five pounds.
"May I help you?" she asked.
He gave her a smile. "I'm Jake Cantrell. I've got an appointment at ten with Ian Dumont."
She frowned, looked down at the computer screen on the desk, but apparently didn't see his name. "He didn't mention it. He's getting ready for another meeting. You might have to wait awhile."
"Not a problem. In the meantime, I could sure use a cup of coffee."
Amusement tipped her mouth up, making a tiny dimple appear next to those plump, rose-colored lips. He could see the curves beneath her tailored suit, suggesting her breasts were just the right size, and her waist was small.
Jake's groin tightened. Which surprised him, since he needed the coffee to recover from the night he'd spent with Deanna Leblanc, an old flame who was in Houston to film a TV commercial.
The receptionist cast him a look. "I'll see what I can do." But she didn't make a move, just turned to the woman hurrying toward her across the waiting room.
"Oh, I'm so sorry I'm late, Ms. Dumont," the newcomer said.
Son of a bitch. A Dumont, Jake thought. Asking her to fetch him a cup of coffee was probably not the best idea he'd ever had.
"Is Paulo all right?" the Dumont woman asked.
"My son wasn't driving, thank God." The real receptionist, attractive and in her mid-forties, had straight black hair pulled back in a bun and smooth, olive skin. "Paulo has a concussion and a couple of fractured ribs, but it looks like he's going to be okay. Thank you for covering while I was gone."
"Your boy was in a car accident, Marie. It wasn't a problem. I'm just glad he's going to be all right." The Dumont woman tipped her head toward Jake, her soft mahogany curls sliding around her shoulders, making the muscles across his abdomen clench.
"Mr. Cantrell is here to see Ian," she said. "I have to get to the meeting. Could you fetch him a cup of coffee while he waits?"
Jake felt the slight rebuke in the glance she cast his way. Clearly, she wasn't used to fetching a man much of anything.
"Of course," Marie said. Ms. Dumont walked away, heading for the tall walnut door leading into Ian Dumont's imperial domain. Her strides were long and purposeful, Jake noticed, as if she had someplace important to go. He liked a woman who didn't dawdle. And his earlier assessment was rightshe had a great ass and a pair of legs that wouldn't quit. She was only about five-six, but her expensive spike heels pushed her somewhere close to six feet.
He watched her disappear behind the door, wondering what role she played in the Dumont empire, then turned his attention to the receptionist.
Marie was smiling. "Mr. Cantrell?"
"Mr. Dumont mentioned yesterday that you would be coming in this morning. I believe he wants to see you as soon as you arrive." She indicated the office door. "I'll bring coffee for everyone into the meeting."
"Thank you, Marie."
The woman blushed as Jake turned and walked away.
It was his size mostly, he figured, that made women take a second look. He was used to it by now.
He swung open the walnut door and stepped inside, finding only two people in the roomthe woman he had subtly insulted and a silver-haired gentleman in his late seventies, slightly stooped but still impressive, undoubtedly Ian Dumont.
"Mr. Cantrell, I assume," the man said. "Our mutual friend, Trace Rawlins, had nothing but good things to say when he recommended you for this job." Trace knew Ian well. He'd recently helped design the state-of-the-art alarm system for Marine Drilling when the building was renovated. "Please join us."
The Dumont woman was staring, one of her dark eyebrows slightly elevated in question. He noticed she was wearing a flashy diamond engagement ring. Since he felt a jolt of heat whenever he looked at her, it was probably good she was out of his reach.
Ian Dumont walked the length of the long conference table to greet him, reaching out to shake his handa strong, solid handshake that set the tone for the discussion ahead. He'd once had calluses on those hands, Jake figured.
"Why don't we all sit down?" the CEO suggested.
They grouped themselves at one end of the table, which was done in the same walnut and chrome as the waiting area. Wide plate-glass windows looked down on the city streets, and modern artwork in bold bright colors lined the inner walls.
The door swung open and Marie walked in with a silver coffee service. She set the tray down on the table and poured each of them a cup.
"Thank you, Marie," Ian said as she quietly headed back out the door. He fixed his attention on Jake. "I asked you here today to discuss providing security for one of our people during an upcoming business negotiation."
"Right. An S. E. Dumont, you said, when we spoke on the phone."
"That is correct."
"Wait a minute," the woman interrupted, her gaze sliding toward Jake. "Ian, you aren't thinking"
"Mr. Cantrell, I'd like you to meet my granddaughter, Sage Elizabeth Dumont."
The room fell silent. Son of a bitch. She was his assignment?
"I don't need a bodyguard, Ian."
The older man turned toward her, a determined glint in eyes that looked strikingly similar to the flashing, gold-ringed brown ones belonging to his granddaughter.
"This man has experience in Middle Eastern protocol as well as a background in personal security. Isn't that correct, Mr. Cantrell?"
"This is a business transaction," Sage argued. "I'm not in any sort of danger."
Both men ignored her. "Over the years, I've done a lot of corporate protection work, both in South America and the Middle East," Jake said. "I worked in Saudi Arabia for three years after I got out of the marines. So yes, I'm familiar with the protocols."
"I understand you were in Special Forces. You served in Iraq, I believe?"
"That's right." Ian Dumont had done his homework.
"Sage is vice president of acquisitions and distribution for Marine Drilling. Currently she is involved in a transaction that may reach the three-hundred-million-dollar mark, a deal being negotiated with Sheik Khalid Al Kahzaz of Saudi Arabia. The sheik and his family are due to arrive in just a few days."
"I see," Jake said noncommittally. Protecting a corporate executive was one thing. Protecting a young socialite who got her job because she was a member of the Dumont family was something altogether different.
"With your experience," Ian continued, as Jake took a sip of his coffee, "I'm hoping you will be able to guide my granddaughter through this visit with our Saudi friends, and should any trouble arise, also keep her safe."
"That's what I get paid for."
Sage shifted in her chair, irritation clear in her face. "We need to discuss this in private, Ian."
The old man smiled indulgently. "We can do that, of course, but the result will be the same. You're representing Marine Drilling International. You will be prominently engaged in entertaining the sheik, his daughter and son, and the remainder of his party. The unrest in their part of the world has reached all the way to our city. A man was killed in a Middle Eastern prodemoc-racy demonstration last night."
"That was an accident," Sage protested. "He was hit by a car."
"The police are still investigating. They're not completely certain what actually happened. And even if it was an accident, tempers are running hot on all fronts. Your safety is vitally important to me. Mr. Cantrell will make certain you are safe."
"It will only be during the day, for as long as the sheik is here, or when you are somewhere entertaining him and his family. Along with that, there are things you need to know that Mr. Cantrell can teach you."
Her shoulders tightened. "I understand there are business protocols, things I need to be aware of. I planned to research the subject. I've just been so busy
"You work too hard, my dear. You need someone to help you. Mr. Cantrell can handle that." Her grandfather rose from his chair and turned to Jake when he stood up, too. "When can you start?"
Part of him wanted to refuse the assignment. Jake didn't want to deal with a bossy, cantankerous female. The other part was looking for something interesting to do after weeks of mostly sitting behind a desk. And keeping a pampered young woman like Sage Dumont out of trouble probably wouldn't be dull.
"If we have only a short time before they arrive," he found himself saying, "we had better get started today."
"Splendid!" Ian said.
Sage's spine went a little straighter. She fixed her gaze on Jake. Even in her high heels she had to look up at him, which he could tell she didn't like.
"Fine," she said. "I'll see you in my office in half an hour. Does that work for you?"
"I'll be there."
And then she was gone.
As soon as the door swooshed shut behind her, Jake heard Ian chuckle. "I knew she was going to pitch a fit about thisactually, I expected far worse. But I want her safe. She means everything to me, Mr. Cantrell."
"It's just Jake. And you can count on me to take care of herwhether she likes it or not."