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By KATHERINE GARBERA
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2008 Katherine Garbera
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTo train the mind, you must exercise the patience and determination it takes to shape that steel. -The Dalai Lama
Charity Keone wasn't in the best mood as she entered the offices of Liberty Investigations, and reading that quote on the back of the Celestial Seasonings Raspberry Zinger tea box did nothing to improve her thinking. Normally she and the Dalai Lama were simpatico, but nothing Zen was happening for her today.
Instead she wanted to make her way down to the training room and beat the crap out of a punching bag while pretending it was Senator Perry Jones. He might be "for the people," but he could be such a pig. And she wasn't exactly sure what it said about her that she thought he might be her Mr. Right.
She didn't need to see herself in the mirror to know that her looks were a big part of why Perry had thought she'd say yes to being his trophy wife. Of course, he'd worded it more nicely than that, but she'd been considered a sex trophy since she turned fourteen and landed on the cover of Seventeen.
It didn't even matter that Perry had seen more to her than the model looks. She'd been his bodyguard last year when he'd been receiving threats because of his liberal politics, and then a few months later had become his fiancée. He refused to acknowledge she was more than her pretty face. Had actually told her that once she became Mrs. Senator Jones, then she could chill out on the Jennifer Garner/Sydney Bristow, Alias, wannabe. As if.
Sydney Bristow wished she could do all the things that Charity had done on the job. Protecting diplomats, heads of state, and celebrities wasn't exactly a job for the weak-minded.
There was a noise behind her and she glanced over her shoulder just as her coworker Justine O'Neill entered the room.
"Are you going to pour yourself a cup of tea or just keep glaring at the box?" Justine asked.
Charity grabbed a coffee mug from the cabinet and added the tea bag. Train the mind. Whatever. She poured hot water over the bag. "I got the text-message from Sam telling me he had a new assignment for us."
"Anna's setting up in the conference room. And we've got five minutes until the call comes in. So spill it."
"Not much to tell. Perry and I broke up." She really tried to keep her voice neutral because despite all the anger she was channeling into her cup of tea, she was also a tad bit hurt. And she didn't want Justine to see that.
"I thought you were going all the way to the finish line with this one."
So had she. "Some of us aren't meant for the white gown and lace veil."
"I'm not, because I've done time-but you're a different story."
"No, I'm not," she said, leaving the kitchen area and heading down the hall to the conference room.
The room was probably a little more high-tech than most. There were three oversize leather chairs, each facing a large flat-screen video monitor at the end of the room. Anna and Justine took their seats sitting side by side and leaving the chair nearest the door for her. The other women sat forward in their leather chairs to gaze at the flat-screen video monitor. "Coldplay" blared from the speakers of Anna's laptop. The rest of the laptops, one per chair, had the official Liberty Investigations logo on their screens.
No donuts in sight. Conferences at Liberty Investigations were all about business, not about sugar. Too bad. An éclair would do a hell of a lot to improve her mood.
"Hey, Charity. How was last night?" Anna asked.
"Let's not go there."
The ringing of the phone interrupted the conversation and Justine hit the speaker button.
If anyone had told Charity ten years ago she'd be working for a high-tech security outfit with a boss who communicated by speakerphone, she would have thought that person was on drugs. Sam Liberty was no Charlie. And no one would have called any of his employees angels.
She scoffed and stirred her tea. If this were a real-life Charlie's Angels, she'd be driving a souped-up Mustang instead of her sensible, late-model sedan. Plus, real security experts didn't chase the bad guys in stilettos, she thought, glancing down at her own modest heeled boots.
"Everyone ready to get the download?"
Charity focused on the screen of her computer, watching the scrolling information downloading on her screen. On the surface she, Justine, and Anna had absolutely nothing in common. Justine had murdered her lecherous stepfather about the same time that Charity was hitting the newsstands on that Seventeen cover. Justine had street smarts and the kind of skills that couldn't be taught in any classroom. Sam had found her working as a bouncer in a dive bar somewhere in Alabama and brought her in to join the team.
Anna on the other hand, was all proper British-lady manners. She'd been officially trained by MI-5, and her path to Liberty Investigations was a mystery to Charity. Anna didn't talk about whatever had happened in London that had led her to Washington, D.C.
"Daniel Williams is our new client. He's the CEO of Williams International-an import/export company based in Seattle and Hong Kong."
Two pictures flashed up on her screen. Charity felt a jolt as she looked at him. Lust at first sight-not exactly what she'd been expecting today. Never before had she felt an instant connection to anyone like Daniel Williams. He was a good-looking man, but more than that, he was smart, savvy, and, from all accounts, ruthless when it came to business.
But what drew her was his eyes. Despite being dressed in suave GQ style, there was an untamed savageness in his eyes that penetrated to her very soul. This man would never call her a wannabe. There was something in his eyes that told her he could see past the surface flash to the substance she never tried to hide.
She rubbed the back of her neck. She must be more tired than she'd realized if she was reacting this way to a photo.
"Normal spellings on the name?" Anna asked, her fingers moving over the keyboard of her laptop.
"Yes, Anna. Williams International is the third-largest importer of goods from Japan to the United States. Daniel has been receiving threats for the last six months. Last night his home was invaded and his household staff roughed up. The housekeeper is in the hospital."
"What kind of threats?" Charity asked.
"Death threats and blackmail. The files I'm sending you will explain everything. Charity, you will serve as a bodyguard to Mr. Williams. Justine and Anna, I want the both of you to dig deep and find out who the blackmailer is."
Charity nodded, tearing herself away from Daniel's piercing gaze. Business, she reminded herself. Time to do what she did best-kick ass. "No problem. When do I leave for Seattle?"
"It's not going to be a piece of cake," Sam Liberty said via a voice box on the desk. She'd never actually met her boss but that didn't stop her from respecting the hell out of him.
Of course, it helped that he'd always treated her as a respected member of the team, and not a piece of arm candy.
Sam was the boss of her three-person team. They only took on clients that Sam approved of, and operated all over the world.
Death threats, she thought, but the guy was a CEO, and Charity doubted she'd be going up against a military-trained sniper. "You're the boss."
"That's right, I am. Mr. Williams is actually in D.C. on business, so you'll meet him at his suite at the Marquis. You'll be flying to Seattle via his private jet."
"Is the pilot someone we know or one of his people?" Charity asked.
"His. Let's make checking out the jet and pilot our first priority," Sam said.
"I'm on it," Justine said.
"That's all for now."
All three women stood up and started toward the door. Charity was already trying to decide how to handle the bodyguard routine. There were a lot of uber-wealthy people in the Seattle area, so she'd worked there before as a bodyguard and was familiar with the layout of the city.
"Charity, I'd like a word with you."
Justine and Anna kept walking and Charity stopped, waiting until the door closed to turn back around.
"You okay?" Sam asked. There was a state-of-the-art video camera in the room so Sam could see them.
"Sure, why are you asking?"
"Word reached me that you broke off your engagement with Senator Jones last night."
Great. "It's not a big deal. We just discovered we wanted different things from marriage."
"Both of you discovered?"
"I don't pry into your personal life," she said.
"Enough said. But I worry about you, Charity. You live only half a life."
"I'm happiest when I'm working."
"I've had the feeling lately that you are getting bored," Sam said.
She was, but not with work. That was partially what bothered her about breaking up with Perry. It didn't hurt nearly as much as it would have if she'd loved the man. "I'm not."
"It's okay to ask for some time off."
What the hell would she do with time off? "I don't need it. I think guarding Daniel Williams will be exactly what I need."
"He's not just a pretty face," Sam said.
"You don't need to tell me that," she said. She always looked beyond the surface. Never took anything at face value because she herself was so much more than what the world saw.
Charity flipped through the file, skimming the details about Daniel Williams. He was urbane and sophisticated but his file also showed that he had a hidden side. A side that the public and his shareholders would find rather uncomfortable, a side that was shrouded in mystery. There was no information on Daniel Williams until he turned twenty-eight and started his importation business.
"What do you think?" Sam asked.
Charity glanced up at the voice box and knew that saying no, that turning down this bodyguard mission simply wasn't an option.
She didn't want to guard this man. There was something disturbing in his eyes. Even in a damned photograph.
"Why does he need us? People like Daniel Williams have their own security force. This sounds like some kind of white-collar crime."
"Two people are in the hospital. The housekeeper is in critical condition. He wants to set himself up as bait to catch the people behind the attacks," Sam said.
The mission specs were simple. Normally this was exactly the type of assignment that she loved.
She knew what Sam was asking without hearing another word. She took a deep breath, trying to ignore the feeling in her gut that said this was a mistake, then reminded herself he was just a man and probably not as good-looking in person.
"I'll make sure he stays alive while we find out who is threatening him."
Daniel Williams had made some piss-poor decisions in his life. Of course, anyone who went from a street kid with gang connections to the owner of a billion-dollar international company was bound to make a few mistakes.
Sitting in the living room area of his suite and waiting for his bodyguard to arrive seemed like one of the most ridiculous decisions he'd ever made. He knew how to handle a gun. And he knew who was blackmailing him. What he hadn't been able to do was find Sekijima. One time he'd been the Gashira to Sekijima's Oyabun, but now they were mortal enemies. He fingered the missing joint on his right hand-his index finger was short and misshapen from a past mistake.
So he'd gone to Liberty Investigations. Sam Liberty was one of those names he'd heard off and on for years, a shadowy figure who knew how to get a job done well within the law.
He rubbed the back of his neck, wishing for a moment he wasn't the CEO, but still a street thug with more guts than smarts. Then he'd go to one of Sekijima's warehouses and leave only when he had the answers he wanted. Like where the hell was the bastard hiding.
But nowadays he had a board of directors to answer to, and stockholders who got a little panicky about seeing the CEO of their company wielding a gun.
Daniel had been willing to wait out the threats and try to bait Sekijima into doing something stupid, but instead Mildred, his housekeeper, had been attacked and hospitalized. Alonzo, one of the team of security men that worked for his company, opened the door and came in.
"Charity Keone from Liberty Investigations is outside, Mr. Williams. Is she expected?"
"Yes, show her in."
Charity. What the hell kind of name was that for a bodyguard?
The door opened and the sunlight from the floor-to-ceiling windows on the left side of the room cast a shadow around the doorway so that he saw her emerge slowly. First a pair of sexy boots that ended at her calf. The smooth expanse of her slim legs extended to her upper thigh where they disappeared beneath the hem of her slim-fitting black miniskirt. He skimmed his gaze over her blousy vee-neck top. Her breasts were large-at least a D-cup-and the material clung to them. A pendant at her neck nestled an inch above her cleavage.
It took some effort to pull his gaze away from her body. When he did, he looked into a pair of serious gunmetal-gray eyes. He cleared his throat as he got to his feet.
The eyes pierced through him for a second. There was something lethal in her gaze that promised him that she was more than capable of whatever job she set her mind to. It was an expression he'd learned to wear at an early age, but she didn't look as if she'd grown up rough. She looked like she'd grown up in a rich man's house. The kind of place where she would have been pampered and had her every need taken care of. So why the hard-assed gaze?
"Ms. Keone?" he asked.
"Yes, Mr. Williams. Have a seat and we can talk about your security needs."
The only needs on his mind right now involved removing her clothing. But that wasn't going to happen. Not yet, anyway. For now, he had to get his head back into this game.
If Sekijima could see him now he'd realize that blackmail wasn't necessary to bring him to his knees. Only this five-foot-seven-inch woman.
"I don't know-"
"Don't let my appearance fool you, Mr. Williams. Have you had a chance to look at my credentials?"
He had. She was impressive on paper, but he was having a very hard time reconciling that with the woman who stood before him.
"Of course I have," he said, pacing away from her to face the windows that looked out over the D.C. skyline, which he'd be glad to abandon for Seattle and his view of Puget Sound. Two days of testifying before a house subcommittee made him claustrophobic and eager for the breathing room of the Pacific Northwest.
She came over to him, pulling him back from the windows, and led him to one of the side chairs.
"What are you doing?"
"Keeping you out of harm's way. That's my job."
"I'm pretty sure a sniper isn't something we have to worry about."
"Most people are pretty sure of that until they're dead. Better to be safe than sorry."
"Is that your mantra?" he asked.
That gray gaze of hers dropped and she shook her head. "No, that's not my mantra. But it's a good one for a man whose life has been threatened. Do you have any idea who could be behind the threats?"
He always played his cards close to his chest. This investigation was no different. If Sam hadn't relayed the information he'd already given to Charity, then neither would Daniel.
"No clue. I'm just a guy trying to run his business."
"Give me a break. You're one of the most powerful men in the import business."
"Yeah, there is that. But otherwise I'm just like everyone else."
"Most people who are being threatened have an idea why."
"I've discussed my thoughts with your boss."
She narrowed her gaze and he had the first glimpse of the woman he'd read about on paper. "Very well. When are we leaving?"
"In an hour. I have one last meeting in a few minutes."
"I'm going to check out the suite. How confident are you that your security team can protect you?"
"I hired you, didn't I?"
"You don't give much away, do you?"
"It doesn't pay in my business."
"Well, I'm your new best friend if you want to stay alive, so consider sharing with me," she said.
"Please don't call me that. You may address me as Ms. Keone or Charity."
"Charity, then, I'm not the sharing type," he said. She might play at being tough as nails, but he was damned sure he would have to protect her if they got into any trouble.
What the hell was Sam Liberty doing hiring a woman like her?
"Wait here," he said, turning his back on her. He sent a message via his BlackBerry to Sam Liberty.
I need a bodyguard, not a distraction. Please send a replacement ASAP.
There was a rap on the door and he moved to open it. But Charity got there first, stopping the door from opening all the way, using her body to shield the room.
Excerpted from BARE FACTS by KATHERINE GARBERA Copyright © 2008 by Katherine Garbera. Excerpted by permission.
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