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By KATHERINE GARBERA BRAVA BOOKS
Copyright © 2008 Katherine Garbera
All right reserved.
Chapter One Justine O'Neill knew three things with absolute certainty. There was no such thing as fair play in this world. Men didn't love little girls, they abused them. And Sam Liberty, her boss, would never ask her to do a job unless he believed there was a reason for her to be there.
But at this moment, she was seriously pissed at Sam for taking this assignment. She worked for a man she'd never met or seen. She got instructions from him via a computer voice box, but she and her two counterparts never referred to themselves as "Angels."
For one thing, Justine thought she was no one's idea of an angel. She had a sealed juvenile record from when she'd killed her lecherous stepfather, Franklin Baron, and she fought like a street punk. It didn't matter that she was only five feet, two inches tall, and weighed barely one hundred pounds. There were few people on this earth that she couldn't best in a physical fight.
She'd learned early how to fight and punch, and she knew how to win. She'd do anything to win. Her days of being a victim had been over for more than twenty years.
"Are you going to mangle that bagel or eat it?" Charity Keone asked. Charity was a member of Justine's team and was probably the closest thing Justine had to a best friend, save for Anna Sterling, the other member of their team. The three women were closer than sistersand had been in real life-and-death situations, which had created a bond between them that nothing could break.
Justine had just done something that no one ever had: walked out of a conference call meeting with their boss, Sam. But the shock of knowing he'd taken a job with her stepfather's family's company had been too much. And she'd had to get out of the room before she exploded.
She should have gone to the workout room instead of the kitchen. But he'd rattled her. Sam, who'd been the one man she'd almost trusted, had rattled her. What was up with that?
"I'm not going to mangle a bagel," she muttered, tossing it on the tray in the kitchen area of the Liberty Investigations offices. She'd like to strangle someone-say, Sam Liberty.
Why would he take a job for her stepfather's family company-Baron Industries? Granted she didn't know any of the people in his family, and her name had been changed a long time ago. She scarcely remembered the scared girl who had been Jackie Conrad.
But still, she'd always avoided the rest of the Baron clan. She shook her head, trying to push back the past into that box where she kept it. That box she reserved for the people who thought wealth and privilege made up for a lack of morality.
Why would Sam assign her to work for the CEO of Baron Industries? Sam was the one person not involved in her criminal past who knew about it. Granted, the current CEO wasn't a Baron. But just the same, she didn't want to have anything to do with anyone associated with Baron Industries.
"Seriously, Justine, what's up?"
"Nothing. Just not looking forward to another cakewalk assignment. What's with Sam taking on all these CEOs? I want a dictator who needs assassinating, or a political prisoner who needs breaking out of prison."
Charity laughed. "CEOs aren't that bad. This kind of work is our bread and butter. Besides, you know that CEOs aren't necessarily easy assignments. We got beat up pretty badly protecting Daniel."
Of course, she'd think so. Charity was dating the last CEO they'd been assigned to protect. And the reason they'd gotten beaten up on Daniel's case was because Daniel had kept some key information to himself. A fact that had scarcely surprised Justine, since she knew that most men were usually hiding something.
"Whatever. I'm going to get my laptop."
"I'm here if you need to talk," Charity said.
"Whatever's got you wound up."
"Nothing bothers me," she said, walking away and wishing those words were true. Instead, she recognized that feeling that had been dogging her lately. The feeling that her past was catching up with her, and that it was time to run again.
Bread-and-butter assignments be damned. She needed action; it was the only thing that soothed the restlessness inside her. Strategic planning and being a freaking bodyguard just didn't cut it.
She rubbed the back of her neck as she entered her private office. She had a window that looked out over the Mall area, and in the distance, she could see the Washington Memorial. She'd taken this job in what seemed like a lifetime ago to honor her deceased father, the tough old marine who had raised her to fight her own battles, and to love God and her country. She still missed him.
He was the one exception to her rule about men. The one that proved it. Her father had adored her and her sister Millie. His way of showing them affection may have been considered unconventional, but Jackson Conrad had seen some real horrors done to women and children during his time in Vietnam. She knew that had affected him, and had been the driving force behind why he'd taught her and Millie to fight and stand up for themselves from the time they started walking.
She'd had her dad for only eight short years before he'd been killed in the line of duty, in some action that she didn't even know the name of. And then her life had changed when her mother remarried and brought them into Franklin Baron's home.
"Hmm?" She glanced up to see Anna Sterling standing in her doorway. Anna was a very proper British lady who spoke with a crisp accent. At first glance, Anna seemed like she'd be a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, but she had a bawdy sense of humor that Justine always found refreshing, and a devious mind when it came to catching criminals.
"Sam wants you back on the conference call," Anna said.
"Sorry, I wanted to go over the details of this job one more time before the meeting."
"Sorry? You never apologize. Are you feeling alright?"
Justine flipped her off and grabbed her laptop.
Anna laughed as she led the way down the hall to the conference room.
The conference room was probably a little more high tech than most. There were three large leather chairs, each facing a large flat-screen video monitor at the end of the room. Anna took her seat on the left, and Charity was already seated to the far right. Justine always sat in the middle. The other women sat forward in their leather chairs to gaze at the flat-screen video monitor. "Karma Police" by Radiohead blared from the speakers of Anna's laptop. Anna's mood was easily gauged by the music she picked to play; Radiohead was a moody and melancholy Anna.
Justine glanced at her friend, wondering what was up, but Anna looked pointedly at her computer screen. Justine sat in her chair and plugged her laptop into the power supply at her work area.
There were no snacks or drinks on the sidebar. Conferences at Liberty Investigations were all about business, not about sugary foods or drinks. Which was entirely fine with her. Justine liked to keep her body in tiptop shape, since it was the one weapon she always had with her.
"Thanks for rejoining us," Sam said.
"Yeah, I'm back. Tell me more about the work we'll be doing?"
"I'm sending you all a file. The basics are that Baron Industries, an international pharmaceutical company, has constructed a new facility in the Amazon Basin that is being plagued by a local uprising against them. Their base operation manager can't handle it and just quit."
"Why are they building there if it's so hostile?" Justine asked, scanning the report as quickly as the information was showing up on her screen.
"The Peruvian government wants foreign investors there. It's the locals who aren't as happy. The Minister of Commerce and Foreign Trade gave Baron a huge kickback to develop there."
"Greedy bastards," Justine said under her breath.
"Why would the CEO go down there?" Anna asked, talking over Justine's comment.
"Apparently, no one else will go. His executives flat-out refused, and he is doing this to prove that it's safe for them and their families," Sam said.
"Is there a housing compound?" Charity asked.
"Yes. Nigel has already gotten a top-notch security team in place there, from Corsona Security."
"Well, at least he didn't cheap out on that," Justine said.
"He takes security seriously," Sam said. "Justine, you'll be pulling bodyguard duty on this one."
"Why? That's more Charity's specialty."
"Charity is needed to train the security force that will be taking over at the Baron Industries Peru facility. Would you rather do that?"
"Nah, I'm good with bodyguard duty," Justine said. She wasn't a good teacher. She knew one way to do things-her way. And if her students didn't pick up the lesson quickly, it just pissed her off.
"Charity?" Sam asked.
"That's fine with me. How many people are we talking about, and what kind of training?"
"The entire security team is close to twenty. But you will be training only an elite group of ten who will be responsible for securing the exterior of the facility."
"Why?" Charity asked.
"They have had a number of suspicious incidents at the facility-fires and vandalism. The teams you will train-and there will be two teams-will need to be able to identify the threat before more damage is done. They also need to learn to apprehend, and not kill, the perpetrators."
"Got it. Training here or in Peru?"
"Peru. Nigel is hiring all locals."
"Nigel?" Anna asked.
Justine's curiosity was piqued by what Sam had revealed of their mission.
"Nigel Carter, CEO of Baron Industries. He's the man that Justine will be guarding. Him and his nine-year-old daughter."
"Yes," Sam said.
Justine was about to flat-out tell Sam off because they never protected kids. But Anna spoke up.
"Sam, we don't protect children."
"We do this time."
"I don't like it," Justine said. "Kids don't follow rules, especially wealthy kids."
"That's a stereotype," Charity said.
"You were a wealthy kid," Justine said bluntly. "Were you a rule follower?"
"No. But that doesn't mean the girl won't be."
"For Pete's sake," Justine said.
"Regardless, the girl is part of the mission," Sam said. "Anna, I'd like you on the computer security system. We need more than the passive system that is installed there."
"No problem, Sam," Anna said, her fingers moving over her keyboard even as she spoke. "When will we be leaving?"
"Justine is traveling with Carter and his daughter on the Baron jet this evening. You will meet them at the executive airport. Charity and Anna, I'd like you two to take our jet and head out as soon as possible. Secure the hangar that Baron uses in Peru."
"Will do. Is that all?" Charity asked.
"For now," Sam said.
They all gathered their laptops and notes, and headed for the door.
"Justine, I need a word with you alone," Sam said.
Charity and Anna filed out and there was silence now. Justine didn't sit back down because that restless feeling was back, and she knew if she sat down she wouldn't be able to sit still. So instead, she paced around the conference room until she realized what she was doing. That, and the fact that Sam was waiting for her to say something.
"What did you want, Sam?"
"To give you a chance to get it all out."
She shook her head. "You don't really want that."
"I do. I've known you for a long time. I know what I'm asking from you."
She shook her head. "I'm really pissed at you, Sam."
"Baron? You know I can't work for them."
"No one knows who you are, and even if they did, no one mourned Franklin Baron's death."
She shook her head. "You're right. They didn't."
She couldn't tell Sam the real reason she hated Baron Industries. She refused to even dwell on that. "Whatever. That's all in the past."
"You have to let go of the past."
"I have," she said, knowing the words were only partially true. "I can't believe you gave me bodyguard duty with a kid."
There was silence for a minute, and she wondered if Sam was going to let her change the subject, but then she heard his low chuckle. "Yeah, I know. That was a nice bonus."
She gave the video camera, which allowed Sam to see her, the finger and turned to walk away.
She glanced back over her shoulder. "This isn't about the past. They are just another client."
She nodded and walked out of the room, wishing like hell she could believe Sam. But a part of her knew that Baron was always going to be so much more than a job to her. They were tied to the man who'd betrayed her and torn apart her safe world. And a big part of her was always going to resent anyone who made money from them.
Nigel Carter didn't have time for meetings or for people who couldn't do a job without asking a million questions. He looked at Derrick Baron and fought the urge to punch the senior vice president; he had the feeling the board at Baron Industries would look poorly on him hitting the one Baron left in the executive offices.
And if Derrick was any indication of the leadership skills that the collective Barons had, then it was no wonder they operated in name only when it came to the running of the company.
"You will be checking in with me every day, right?" Derrick asked for what had to be the fifth time since he'd entered the office ten minutes ago.
"Yes. I have it scheduled, and with the satellite phone, we'll be able to keep in touch. The Baron compound is fully functional. It's just security that's the issue there."
"I don't understand why Jenkins can't cover this," Derrick said, rubbing one hand over his thinning hair. The man was clearly nervous at the thought of being left in charge.
Because Jenkins's wife flat-out refused to allow her husband to go someplace where he might be killed. And Nigel had never in his entire corporate career been one who'd ask his people to do something he himself wouldn't do.
"I've already indicated I would. What are your concerns?"
Derrick rubbed his head one more time before thrusting his hands into his pants pockets. "My grandfather is adamant that ..."
"That you live up to the Baron name?" Nigel asked.
"You're doing a fine job. Relax a little and things will go smoother."
"I can't screw this up."
"Why not?" Nigel asked. There was so much he didn't know about the Baron family, but to be honest, he felt like he knew the important stuff. Anything that applied to running the company was enough for him.
"My father was a huge disappointment, and was actually fired from the company. My branch of the family, well, Grandfather was ready to disown us all until I started working here."
And Derrick did a fine job in finance, where he was a highly trained accountant. But when he was asked to step outside of the world of numbers and into the executive management role for which he was also paid, he struggled.
"You and I will have our daily check-in," Nigel assured Derrick.
Nigel clapped his hand on the other man's shoulder, showing him support. His earlier anger disappeared as he realized that what Derrick needed was someone who just believed in him, instead of constantly reminding him of the past, as Nigel was certain that Conrad Baron did whenever he talked to his grandson.
There was a knock on his door. "We good, Derrick?"
"Yes, thank you."
Nigel walked Derrick to the office door and opened it for him to leave. He looked distracted already as he walked down the hall. He almost walked into a small dark-haired woman who was standing in the doorway that led to the executive hallway right next to his vacant secretary's desk. She was vigilant in her stance, her eyes scanning the room. There was an aura of danger around her that was at odds with her fragile exterior.
"Can I help you?" he asked.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, Mr. Carter. I'm Justine O'Neill, from Liberty Investigations," she said, striding forward and offering her hand.
This was his bodyguard? He wasn't sure what he'd expected, but given the reputation of Liberty Investigations, he imagined he'd have a big hulking ex-football player, not this ... damn, if she didn't remind him of the fairies Piper was constantly coloring and leaving in his briefcase.
But a warrior fairy, he thought, struggling not to grin at her.
He shook her hand, automatically lightening his normal handshake, but her grip was firm and hard. She pumped their hands up and down and started to draw away before he was ready to let her. He realized she'd had him at a disadvantage since she walked into the room. She was forceful and in charge-and clearly used to that.
And she was managing him.
Excerpted from BARE WITNESS by KATHERINE GARBERA
Copyright © 2008 by Katherine Garbera. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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