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"Who is that handsome man wearing the tux?"
Katherine Barton Atkins thanked the waiter for her mineral water with a twist of lime, then glanced around at the woman who'd just asked that question. Red-haired Trudy Pearson had one elegant eyebrow raised in standard cougar mode while she stared across the crowded ballroom.
"Trudy, every man in the room has on a tux," Katherine explained, bemused and just a little morose because of Trudy's need to find a second husband, no matter what.
Some women just couldn't handle being alone, but Katherine was determined not to be one of those. She couldn't fault Trudy for trying, though. They were both widows now. Katherine had married her college sweetheart and Trudy had married an older man whom she'd loved with all her heart. And they'd both lost their husbands within six months of each other. After a year of being a widow, Katherine was trying to get on with her life while Trudy was trying to find a replacement. Katherine kept busy searching for something to fill her empty soul, while Trudy kept busy searching for a younger man because she was so afraid of growing old alone.
"Yes, darlin' Kit," Trudy replied in her sophisticated drawl, "every man in the room has on a tux, but only that man over there by the parlor fern knows how to wear one."
Curious, Katherine kept smiling at the people passing by her, then looked in the direction of Trudy's overly interested gaze, her expression shifting from disdain to dismissal as her gaze caught and held that of the man's. She took a sip of her cold water, the elegant bracelet watch Trudy had given her for her last birthday dangling down her arm. "Oh, that man wearing the tux. He's my detail."
"Excuse me," Trudy said, almost dropping her sparkling gold evening purse. "Your detail? What exactly does that mean? And I want the details, all of them. He's positively yummy. And that tuxedo is tailor-made for him and only him."
Kit touched her chignon then looked over at the tall, dark-haired man who was pretending he wasn't looking over at her. "My father thinks I need a bodyguard. I told you about those strange hang-up calls and then the cryptic letters I received. He's just being overly cautious because of this big crowd, I think."
Trudy glanced over at Katherine's father, Gerald Barton, who was standing with his wife, Sally Mae, talking to several other people. "Your daddy doesn't looked worried so why the detail?"
"Oh, he's not worried—because of the detail. You know my father hires only the best. And rumor has it this one is top of the line." She didn't want to give her friend the fact sheet on her bodyguard, nor did she tell Trudy about the feeling that someone had been in her house and office. She'd rather not talk about any of that tonight. She'd rather the bodyguard wasn't here in the first place.
But her father was a top-level member of CHAIM, the elite private security organization that worked to protect people the world over. That made him a bit tense and paranoid at times. He'd been worried about her since her husband Jacob had died, but when Katherine happened to mention a few unexplained calls and some of her files being moved and shuffled around, her father had gone into overdrive.
Katherine indulged her father because she knew he meant well, but sometimes his protective nature stifled her. Such as tonight.
"Top of the line is the word, darlin'," Trudy replied, her predatory gaze centered on the man. "He is the very definition of tall, dark and…dangerous."
Katherine couldn't help but laugh at her friend's description, but she tended to agree. At least this time, her father had hired a looker. "Yes, that's him, brought in all the way from London, England. He was hand-picked to look out for me tonight. But I'm trying to ignore him."
Trudy's burgundy silk gown rustled as she stepped closer. "British and in a tux. How on earth can you ignore that, do tell?" Then she gave Kit a wry smile that held just a trace of condescension. "Oh, let me guess. You can't say anything else about it, right?"
Her friend knew the complications of being the widow of a senator. And Trudy also knew that Kath-erine's father worked for a mysterious, secretive organization. But Trudy understood discretion and privacy. Besides, it was just too hard to explain right now.
"I'd rather not talk about it," Kit said, completely aware that each time she moved an inch the dashing Sir Shane Warwick, known as the Knight, moved an inch with her. Turning away from the agent who worked for the covert Christian organization, she said, "This is a benefit, Trudy. I need to mingle with our patrons and thank them for their generosity toward the Barton Atkins Foundation." She put down the water she'd been nursing and whirled around, her cream-colored evening gown whispering around her legs, her matching high-heeled satin sandals making her feet scream for release. "Now why don't you quit ogling the man and help me greet my guests, okay?"
"Oh, all right," Trudy replied, turning to whisper something to a nearby waiter. Winking at the waiter, she pivoted back to Kit. "But later, you and I are going to have a serious talk. If you're in danger enough to need a handsome guard following you around, I need to know." Then she touched a hand to Kit's arm, her brown eyes turning serious. "I couldn't bear it if—"
"I'm fine," Kit said, wishing her father wasn't so overbearing. "It just goes with the territory."
Gerald Barton was one of the top agents in CHAIM— Christians for Amnesty, Intervention and Missions. And even though her father was supposedly retired, Kit had learned at an early age that a CHAIM agent never really retired. Especially when that agent's only daughter had lost her husband under questionable circumstances and was, herself, constantly receiving threats because of her stand against injustice.
Frustrated with the restrictions on her life, she shook her head then silently chastised herself. Maybe a prayer of thanks would be more appropriate, considering she was loved and held dear by her family and her friends.
And she was blessed beyond measure. Which made her quip, "I'd like to forget all of this, just for tonight, okay?"
Trudy nodded, then leaned in. "But, honey, you must be thinking the same thing I'm thinking. They never figured out what happened when Jacob's helicopter went down. That crash might not have been an accident, no matter how hard the authorities tried to do a cover-up."
"You don't have to remind me of that," Kit said, old hurts making her snap in spite of Trudy's concerns. "I think about it every day of my life." And she always hoped that somewhere in her philanthropic travels, she'd find out the truth regarding her husband's death. But no one was willing to delve into that now. It was over and done.
Lord, give me strength and patience, she silently prayed. And teach me how to get over this deep grief.
"I'm sorry," Trudy said. She dropped her arm and stood back. "Go do your job. But remember, you promised me you will take some time off for that spa trip we keep talking about. I've found a very secluded retreat out in New Mexico. Just the two of us. We need some downtime."
Kit looked at her watch again, thinking she'd need to make a speech in a few minutes. "That would be good. I've been so busy planning tonight's event, I think I'm a little overwrought. But, Trudy, thanks for your concern."
Trudy gave her a quick peck on the cheek, her worried look changing to playful as she touched a finger to Kit's pearls, lifting the strand for a second before she let the shimmering strand drop. "Whatever you think about him, that gorgeous man over there can't seem to take his eyes off you, darlin'."
"That's because he's being paid to keep his eyes on me," Katherine countered.
"And I'm sure he's enjoying his job," Trudy replied as she waltzed away and into the crowd. "Maybe you should enjoy the company."
Kit lifted her head, her hand going up to the single strand of pearls Jacob had given her for their tenth anniversary. They'd gone out to dinner and after they'd come home, he'd unclasped the pearls and hugged her close. They'd been fighting but he'd tried all that night to make up to her. "Promise me you'll wear these every single day."
"I promise," she'd said. That was the last time she'd held him in her arms. Her husband was dead now, and in many ways, so was she. At least she felt dead inside. Her devout mother and former CHAIM operative, Sally Mae, would tell her to never give up hope, to turn to her faith. But how could that help now?
What did it matter if she was receiving death threats for her determined stance? She had work to do and she intended to do it, and no amount of empty threats would stop her. Her work was the only thing holding Kit together these days. Work was her salvation. So with a renewed determination that included ignoring the handsome, dedicated man who'd been shadowing her all night, Katherine put on a convincing smile then moved through the glittering crowd filing into the hotel ballroom, her mind going on autopilot as she played to the hilt the role of hostess.
Head up, shoulders back, and a serene expression. That was the Barton tradition, after all.
He shouldn't have signed up for this. It was never a good idea to be in charge of taking care of a beautiful woman. Never a good idea, but then the Knight was known for taking on the tough cases. This one was killer tough. And so lovely.
Shane Warwick moved through the crowd, his gaze sweeping the room with a cool assessment. The ballroom was long and rectangular with shimmering crystal chandeliers and gleaming mirrored walls, which made it twice as hard to keep up with the subject under surveillance. Glass windows all around the big square room allowed an incredible view of downtown Austin, Texas, and the Colorado River, but Shane didn't have time to look out the windows. If he took his eyes off Katherine Barton Atkins long enough, he could enjoy the view of the State Capitol gleaming brightly off in the distance. But he couldn't look away from her and for more reasons than just this particular assignment required.
The woman was easy on the eyes, as they liked to say here in Texas.
Shane went over the facts, trying to distract himself from getting too involved. Getting involved with beautiful women was his gift and his downfall. Sometimes the job required certain things and sometimes he just fell hard for a pretty face then moved on once the excitement had worn off. He couldn't allow that to happen this time. Mainly because if Shane crossed that line with this woman, her father and his superior, Gerald Barton, would shoot first and ask questions later, as they also liked to say here in Texas.
Back to the facts, he sternly reminded himself.
Katherine "Kit" Barton Atkins, daughter of wealthy CHAIM leader Gerald Barton and his wife, Sally Mae Barton, childless widow of State Senator Jacob Atkins, and CEO of the Barton Atkins Foundation. Old Texas money and all the perks and responsibilities of also inheriting her husband's newly minted money to boot.
According to the information he'd been given, the young widow wasn't a typical socialite. She believed in the causes she worked so hard for, even if it meant she had to attend such stuffy affairs as this one. And even if it meant she had to go out into the field and make her points with photo ops and highly opinionated, impassioned speeches. Plus, she didn't seem to mind getting down and dirty or going into the fray. He'd seen pictures of her holding dying infants in third world countries; he'd seen pictures of her walking through storm-littered villages. And he'd seen an unauthorized shot of her standing in a corner, turned slightly away from the glare of the spotlight, her hand to her face, all alone and wearing exquisite white pearls and a severe black dress, just after they'd buried her husband.
But she hid her grief behind her work and that was why he was here. Her father was very concerned about her. Which made Shane concerned, too, and intent on protecting her. If he could keep the woman in his line of sight.
She moved through the crowd with a grace that reminded Shane of ballerinas and swans and all things lovely. Her whole persona exuded cool, blond elegance. Her evening gown was almost severe in its cut and color—shimmering and sleeveless but with a discreet beaded beige portrait collar and a skirt that flowed all around her in soft, folding wisps of designer-cut silk. And she was wearing what looked like the same pearls she'd worn to her husband's funeral. Other than a pretty glittering watch on her left arm and her wedding band, the pearls were her only decoration. He wondered if she'd chosen this dress and jewelry on purpose—to set her apart from all the standard but predictable black and red formal dresses, festooned with sparkling jewels, fluttering all around her. Or had she just reached into her closet and come up with a winning combination of classic proportions? Either way, it worked for Shane.
Shane had always admired attractive women and he could spot a phony a mile away. Katherine was the real thing. Purebred and gracious, perfectly attired and perfectly serene. She seemed untouchable, unruffled and unconcerned, until she glanced up and straight into his eyes. Then she just looked determined and defiant.
Shane smiled to himself and put on his best game face. Kit was coming to greet him, at last. But she did not appear happy to see him.
"You're becoming a nuisance, Sir Warwick," she said as she walked up to him, a soft smile belying the dare in her pretty green eyes.
"Oh, really?" Shane took her hand and held it to his lips for the briefest of kisses. "And how's that, Mrs. Atkins, since you have yet to even acknowledge me. I was beginning to think I'd lost my touch."
She put a hand to her throat, diamonds twinkling on her finger. "Where are my manners?" Her smile didn't change, but the expression in her cat-like eyes certainly did. "I thought it wasn't proper for a woman to acknowledge the man her father hired to watch out for her, or was I wrong in that assumption?"
Shane adjusted his black tie. "Your father warned me about your attitude. And that you'd spot me the minute I entered the room."